Integration, where are you?

 

Email Sandra Nichols

  "It is my hope that the children of California can learn to work together effectively with full appreciation of our diverse nature. Diversity is not our cross to bear. It is one of our many assets."

 

he word "integration" has been stolen! Kidnapped, while we weren't looking! Someone ran off with it!

Last week I attended Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante's Education Summit. There was talk of test scores, proficiency levels, budgetary issues, masters plans, English learners, and all the challenges educators face. However, the word "integration" was not there.

Upon returning home, I dreamed I hunted for the word in the dictionary. Seeking it between the word "integer" and "integrity", I found a blank area. I was thinking, "Who whited-out the word 'integration,' and how can we have integrity without it?"

Let's do an online search.

My search yielded the growing theory that the word "integration" has not been completely eliminated. There is evidence of new energy being devoted to integrating schools on the Web.

In Minnesota, there are school districts that work cooperatively to resolve segregation, whether it be intentional or unintentional, in the schools and in the communities. The North West Suburban Integration School District describes itself as a nonprofit organization promoting multicultural educational programs. According to the web site, www.nws.k12.mn.us, Minnesota has a "Desegregation Rule" requiring school districts to work together to design desegregated learning environments that parents can choose for their children.

Coming to grips with the issue of whether or not schools should have integrated student populations would best precede any discussions about how this could be achieved. Too many discussions about integrated schools end with why we can not have them!

At a California School Board Association conference in the not too distant past, I listened to a speaker whose theme was that racially isolated schools could never hope to achieve adequate progress on test scores. This pessimism seems somewhat merited, especially in a world in which racial isolationism has linguistic implications.

Consider schools in which many students speak a variety of languages other than English. Sometimes a single student speaks a language that no other student or teacher speaks at that school. Imagine the motivation and opportunity such a student would have to learn English. The motivation would come from the sheer urgency at every moment to speak and understand English. If surrounded by native English speakers, the student would be in a prime position to acquire English skills as rapidly as possible.

Such a student's situation might replicate that of a foreign exchange student, especially when the student is of middle school or high school age and has already acquired native language reading skills. We all know how foreign exchange students learn to speak the language of the country in which they study. Language immersion experiences in those grade levels are very effective.

Now consider the plight of racially isolated students who all speak the same language, which is not English. When this occurs, significant challenges follow. The extremely limited number of peers who speak English proficiently is a huge issue at racially isolated schools. Language, a crucial factor in determining who your friends are, how well you achieve academically and what kind of job you can obtain, becomes an issue that looms far larger than color, family history, socioeconomic status, and perhaps even culture.

There are two reasons to promote integrated schools that rise to the surface in any serious discussion on this topic. First, integrated schools promote English language acquisition. Additionally, children and youth in integrated schools with effective programs to achieve acceptance and even appreciation of diversity, learn tolerance and the ability to work together with people of different backgrounds and perspectives. This skill cannot be overemphasized in California, where minorities are becoming the mainstream population.

It is my hope that the children of California can learn to work together effectively with full appreciation of our diverse nature. Diversity is not our cross to bear. It is one of our many assets. Let's rub some elbows here and get our children together. Let's develop some cross-cultural language buddies. We can do this, and it's going to be very good.

Sandra Nichols is President of the Pajaro Valley Unified School District Governing Board serving 20,000 students in Santa Cruz and Monterey Counties. She is a Speech and Language Specialist with Santa Cruz City Schools, and was recently appointed by the Board of Supervisors to the Santa Cruz County Children and Youth Commission. The opinions expressed are those of Sandra Nichols and do not necessarily represent those of any school district, print publication or web site.

© Sandra Nichols 2003


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