When I was a teacher in East Harlem, New York, every so often students would disappear from my 6th grade Spanish language arts classroom. I remember meeting Keysi, a smaller than average, jolly boy on the first day of school. He wanted to write his autobiographical essay about a comical moment involving his little sister and various bodily fluids. A few weeks before Christmas, Keysi stopped coming to school, and soon it became clear he wouldn't be returning to finish his essay. A friend of his in the class told me with a shrug, "He went back to Mexico."
I never asked our administrators too many questions about kids that left our school. I knew that the situations of many of our students were tenuous. But these moments always left me with a bitter taste in my mouth. What did happen to Keysi? Or to Jair, or José Javier, or any of the other students who attended my school and went back to their native countries or the countries where their parents were born? Many of them were United States citizens, or had at least adapted to everyday life in New York City. What challenges would they face going to school in their "home" countries, places that at the same time might be unknown to them after spending years in U.S. systems?
Here in Mexico, working within an office at the Ministry of Education, I am discovering answers to these questions. The students that left our school are just a handful of the thousands of migrant students that over the last few years, have matriculated into the Mexican education system after spending some time at schools in the United States. According to UNICEF, within the last two years, over 58,000 adolescents and children -- close to 34,000 of whom were unaccompanied -- were repatriated from the United States to Mexico.
While it is close to impossible to track down Keysi, I have heard and read the stories of other returning immigrant students and their parents. They talk about wading through bogs of bureaucracy to get Mexican schools to recognize their American birth certificates and report cards, attempting to communicate with Spanish-speaking teachers in English or broken Spanish, learning the elaborate rituals that public school students practice to salute the Mexican flag, negotiating new history, geography, and Spanish content and different classroom expectations.
Jandreett Totosaus Mendoza and her daughter, Shai, are Mexican-born Canadian citizens currently living in Mexico waiting out the time it is taking to sponsor Jandreett's husband through the Canadian citizenship process. She speaks wistfully of her time in Vancouver, especially about Shai's old school. "She loved, loved, loved, school. Every day she would get excited to go to school. She would say: 'Oh! I don't want it to be the weekend!' or 'Finally! It's Monday, I can't wait to go to school,'" Totosaus told me in Spanish.
For a time back in Cuernavaca, Mexico, Shai was placed in a public primary school -- a sprawling three story building with up to 50 students in a class. The teacher never learned Shai's name, her parents said. "There wasn't a point of reference for Shai with the other students, in terms of what she lived, what liked to do, what she liked to talked about. She felt really strange and different," Totosaus added. "The mornings were really difficult. She would wake up and say, 'I don't want to go to school.' She would start to cry and not want to get out of bed, she would cover her head with the blankets."
The challenges facing these returning migrants are similar to those that the families of immigrant students struggle with in the United States. Several school districts in the United States have long histories implementing multicultural education and programs like English as a Second Language and bilingual education to ease the disorientation students feel when they are transplanted to a new country. Students arrive and are categorized as "English Language Learners," labels that stick with them until they pass a state's English exam. Their progress is specially tracked by some school districts, such as in New York's, where schools are awarded points on their annual reports for helping these students grow academically. In many progressive classrooms, teachers create communities that celebrate their students' diverse experiences.
But in the US, despite these efforts, we have far from solved the problem. There is still a steep hill to climb: According to the National Center for Education Statistics, as of 2009, the English language learning (ELL) population comprised of 20% of school-aged children in the United States. Also in 2009, just 29% of ELLs had an average reading score "at or above basic" levels and 6% were considered "at or above proficient levels." That's compared to 69% of the general population "at or above basic" and 34% that are "at or above proficient."
Educators in the United States should know we are not alone in facing these kinds of statistics. Due in large part to the economic crisis and new anti-immigrant laws in several states in the US, Mexico is being pushed to wrestle with the challenges that migrant students bring -- for the first time and on a large scale -- and there is much we can learn from their budding efforts. Two years ago, the Ministry of Education in Mexico founded a national effort called "Educación Básica Sin Fronteras," or Basic Education Without Borders. The program designed a series of books that help students work through the culture shock and other conflicting emotions they may feel upon return to Mexico and help teachers create classroom communities that recognize diversity. The program frames being a migrant as an asset.
This office also promotes a new teaching method called relaciones tutoras, or tutoring relationships, which has the potential to be especially effective with immigrant students who often crave personal attention. The system does away with the traditional model of teachers expounding content at the front of the room, instead positing that anyone in the class who gets to know a particular mathematical problem or Spanish, historical, or scientific text well can become a tutor on this material for someone else. Tutors don't "explain" content so much as they help the tutee construct the information for themselves based on the knowledge they bring with them to the table.
One secondary school student, Luis Velazquez García, from the state of Zacatecas, Mexico lived in Cicero, Illinois for 8 years: from pre-kindergarten to the 6th grade. He says he arrived back in Mexico without a solid understanding of basic division and multiplication. His teachers implemented tutoring relationships at his public school in Mexico, and today Luis can be found both studying and tutoring others in complicated secondary-school level geometry problems. He is eager to talk about what he has learned since returning and how he learned it. "My tutor never left me alone," he said. He also relishes the opportunity to share his knowledge with others as a tutor: "You get to explain work to others. It is a proud moment."
Reflecting on his education in Illinois, he says: "There they didn't work with this method ... It was nothing more than your teacher teaching you. They didn't give you a chance to be a tutor or a teacher there."
Several of the returning migrant students I've met require not just personalized academic attention, but social and emotional attention: someone to ask them for their stories, to crack shells that have been hardened by experiences like crossing the border, feeling distant from parents who worked all of the time, and enduring discrimination in the United States and even Mexico. In this respect, the team at Básica Sin Fronteras has many ideas about how teachers might play a role, but they recognize that for Mexico's education system -- one unaccustomed to recognizing students' differences -- this is still uncharted territory.
Educators on both sides of the border must better coordinate efforts to share the joys and problem-solve the challenges that come with educating immigrant students. For years, through the Binational Program for Migrant Education (PROBEM, for its initials in Spanish), Mexican teachers have been brought to cities in the United States during the summers to support immigrant students and to expose them to Mexican culture and the Spanish language. But this solution fails to recognize the collective nature of the problem.
Not only do we need Mexican teachers to get to know how our successful districts reach students despite language and cultural barriers, we need to put American teachers in contact with their Mexican counterparts to learn how their best minds work with their returners. We need to take their strategies back home with us.
Our binational students are waiting.
Meixi Ng contributed reporting from Zacatecas to this story.