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Acclimation Station

Newcomer centers help Asian Pacific Islander students transition into American public schools.

Shirley Lum teaches English for Second-Language Learners (ESLLs) at McKinley High School in Honolulu, Hawaii. A child of immigrants—her parents are Chinese—Lum is well aware of the struggles newcomers encounter, but her classroom is filled with students facing even higher hurdles than a language barrier.

Currently, more than 17,000 ESLLs attend Hawaii public schools, and Lum’s classroom is dominated by students from the Micronesian island groups, the fastest-growing segment of the state’s ESLL program. The Compact of Free Association between the United States and the Federated States of Micronesia and the Marshall Islands allows residents of the two former Trust Territory nations to freely move anywhere within the United States. The islanders frequently move to Hawaii for better job opportunities, health care, and education for their children. Ironically, despite a desire for a better education and the opportunities it brings, the Micronesian culture de-emphasizes formal education, and many Micronesian children drop out before graduating.

The task Lum and other ESLL teachers in Hawaii face  is to overcome language difficulties, while also finding a way around a cultural value system where school is optional and learning is informal.

Micronesian culture is based on oral history. Young people learn by listening to the stories of elders, and through songs, dances, and artwork. They’re taught to listen without asking questions—to behave otherwise would be disrespectful.

“When they come here at age 14 or 15, the cultural system is ingrained,” says Lum. “Some arrive at 16 or 17 and have so much to catch up on they can’t meet the 22-credit graduation requirement.”

 To help them transition, Lum has proposed setting up a newcomer center at McKinley for immigrant students. The Hawaii Department of Education already operates newcomer centers throughout the island state. The centers offer one year of instruction for stu-dents with limited English, as well as acculturation training to help familiarize students with the American school setting.

“A newcomer school would be ideal,” says Lum. “We’re asking for at least a quarter of a million dollars to run this school, but if the funding is released, there are other questions to consider—will we have access to the proper teachers and facilities? We want educated Micronesians to be part of it—do we have them in our reach?”

Diane Murakami teaches at Queen Kaahumanu Elementary School in Honolulu, where a newcomer center was established for the 2006–07 school year. Called the New Student Support Center (NSSC), it was integrated into the existing English-language learners program so that resources could be shared.

“Homeroom teachers referred students they felt would benefit from participation in the NSSC, and students who met a set of criteria, including language barriers, limited age-appropriate education in the major content areas, and a lack of familiarity with the Hawaii public school system, were eligible to participate in the center from Monday to Friday, 8:15 a.m. to 9:45 a.m.,” explains Murakami. She says students were provided a specialized curriculum plan that incorporated orientation to school and society with individualized and small group instruction and multicultural education.

At the end of each quarter, the students’ progress was evaluated and the NSSC staff collaborated with the regular homeroom teachers to make a decision about whether a student was ready to leave the center. 

“We want to offer many opportunities to learn in ways that provide the best chance to succeed,” says Murakami.

That’s also the hope of Shirley Lum. With or without newcomer centers, however, Lum recommends that ESLL teachers with Micronesian students, or immigrant students from any country, try to understand their culture, be patient, and set high standards.

“We should instill in these students that the American dream is possible. We don’t want to treat them differently or set lower expectations—we don’t want them to just get by,” she says. During her 25-year career, Lum has seen many Micronesian students succeed. “They came with no English but were ready to study hard. Some work for the government now with bilingual skills,” she says. “Just like my parents when they came over, each person just needs to see the end of the road.”

Photo: AP Images

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