July 1999 — Volume 4, Number 1
Into, Through and Beyond Secondary School: Critical Transitions for Immigrant Youths
Tamara Lucas (1997)
Washington, DC & McHenry, IL: Center for Applied Linguistics & Delta Systems Co.
Pp. xxiv + 294
ISBN 1-887744-03-7 (paper)
Without a doubt, the education of immigrant youth in our high schools and middle schools is an issue of great urgency, and yet it is one that gets scant treatment in the literature. For this reason, Tamara Lucas’ book, Into, Through and Beyond Secondary School: Critical Transitions for Immigrant Youths, offers a much-needed and welcome introduction to a series of books (Topics in Immigrant Education, Joy Kreeft Peyton and Donna Christian, series editors, Center for Applied Linguistics) which will treat a variety of topics in immigrant education. As Lucas rightly points out, “while our understanding of immigrant education in general is limited, insight into the educational experiences and possibilities of secondary school age immigrants is particularly lacking” (p. 3). The issue is both timely and complex. Lucas’ book is one that attempts much, and while it offers a comprehensive overview of the issues, I find that, nonetheless, it falls short of its aim in other significant respects.
One of the book’s strengths is that it situates immigrant youth within a broad sociocultural context, rather than simply positioning them as English language learners. In the first of two sections, Lucas outlines three primary transitions that students face at this level of education, focusing in particular on those who arrive in this country at the age of 11 or later. These transitions are: a) the sociocultural transition to the U.S. culture and schools, b) developmental transitions (i.e., the transition from childhood through adolescence to adulthood) and c) institutional transitions as students move through the U.S. school system into work and higher education. Lucas’ primary thesis is that there is no “one best path” for these students and that “multiple factors influence immigrants’ experiences, strengths and needs, and that they influence different individuals and families differently” (p. 149). Thus, schools need to find multiple pathways that take into account the complexities of these transitions in immigrant students’ lives.
Lucas also situates immigrant education within the broader context of the educational reform efforts currently sweeping through public education, arguing that reform efforts which reconceptualize teaching and learning as active, collaborative and community-based offer greater possibilities for immigrant learners than traditional structures do. She also comments, quite accurately, that these [-1-] reforms are “not yet in place in most schools” (p. 25), and even when they are undertaken, they often do not adequately take into account the needs of immigrant youth.
Part II, entitled “Principles for Facilitating Immigrant Students’ Transitions Into, Through and Beyond Secondary School,” forms the heart of the book. Lucas identifies and discusses four principles, each arising from the philosophy that education must be both contextualized and personalized. The principles (to cultivate organizational relationships, to provide access to information, to cultivate human relationships, and to provide multiple and flexible pathways through the system) are discussed and real-life examples are provided. Each discussion is followed by guidelines and a detailed list of questions to ask in applying the principle. In addition, the book provides a resource list of programs and organizations, which allows readers to contact the cited programs and schools for further information.
Clearly, the audience envisioned for this book is broader than simply those who teach immigrant students, and the author makes explicit the need for schools to go beyond defining immigrant youth solely in terms of their needs as language learners. For example, in exploring the role of teacher-student relationships in student success, she notes that “our ‘methods fetish’ and our concentration on ‘technical issues’ in discussions of minority student achievement generally preclude the explicit examination of the role of relationships in schooling” (p. 109).
In the same vein, Lucas touches on other contextual factors contributing to the difficulties immigrant students face, factors that will resonate with any educator who has worked in secondary schools. She points out, for example, the inherent tension between finding a safe place for immigrant students (often the ESL classroom) and the need to connect them to the broader school community and prevent their isolation within these “safe havens.” She also comments on the uneasy and often mismanaged transition from special courses and programs into mainstream classes. The lack of communication and understanding between ESL and mainstream teachers is exemplified in the experience of Ted, an ESL teacher who, in spite of being part of a four-teacher “team,” was not included in curriculum planning or on-going meetings, and was consulted only regarding problems that had a narrow ESL focus.
While Into, Through and Beyond Secondary School does cover important ground, I nevertheless found it frustrating and inadequate in some respects. By attempting to cover so much, Lucas paints a portrait of secondary school education in such broad strokes that complex issues are often reduced to unsatisfactory lists of facile generalizations. For example, in discussing classroom reforms, Lucas insists that “collaboration also promotes crosscultural learning and [-2-] communication . . . when students of different cultural backgrounds collaborate, they have opportunities to learn about each other and learn to respect different perspectives and experiences” (p. 31). Then, in the following paragraph, she briefly acknowledges some of the difficulties that may arise in such an approach, e.g., that students of different backgrounds have different ways of relating, that misunderstandings may arise, and that language may be a barrier to effective collaboration. This leads to the conclusion that “all involved must be sensitive to different ways of communicating and to the challenges faced by learners of a second language” (p. 32). For the classroom teacher, this kind of quick summary provides little that is new or useful. Nor does it offer much that is helpful to policy makers and administrators (or others less connected to the realities of classrooms), summarized as it is in such brief and general terms. In another instance, Lucas summarizes 11 different types of school-to-work programs, each in a paragraph, and then briefly skims some of the serious issues raised by such programs, among them whether such school-to-work pathways may further institutionalize tracking for language minority students. The issues raised are difficult ones, and the lack of substantive discussion is troubling.
As an author, Lucas takes a strong advocacy stance, which is admirable given the many difficulties immigrant students do face in our schools. However, the broad-brush coverage, coupled with this position of advocacy, often leads to a cataloguing of shoulds which, in the end, becomes repetitive and ineffective. Assertions that “educators of immigrant students need to be not only culturally responsive, but also linguistically responsive” (p. 42), “they need to have a positive attitude” (p. 42) and “educators must know about the complexities of students’ lives” (p. 43) are unquestionably true. But I fear that such lists of we musts and we need tos are not the most effective way to convince policy makers of the need for change. Moreover, I would argue that, as an advocate’s appeal, the book fails to delve deeply enough into the broader social and institutional factors, such as funding, resources, entrenched attitudes or racism, which often prevent the necessary measures from being taken.
Ultimately, when it comes to offering solutions, Lucas too often falls into the generic language of official documents and “bureaucratese” to make her point. In a typical example, she writes that in the creation of new learning environments, “sharing visions, goals, knowledge and resources strengthens educators’ abilities to provide a challenging and appropriate education for all their students” (p. 131). Solutions formulated in such language are bland enough that almost anyone could agree, yet they offer little insight or substantive guidance into the complexities of implementing change in schools. [-3-]
Into, Through and Beyond Secondary Schools is most compelling and convincing when it breaks away from its admonishments and lists, and offers instead concrete discussions of successful programs and school initiatives. For example, the information provided about WISE, an experiential learning and mentorship program based in the New York area, was detailed enough to provide a real “glimpse of what is possible” (p. 200). Such glimpses, sprinkled throughout the book, bring Lucas’ principles to life, and I found myself wishing for more of the same.
As Lucas herself notes, implementing the principles she espouses certainly poses a challenge. Does this book provide help to that end? I would respond with a qualified yes. While it is often frustratingly general, it nevertheless could serve as a starting point for dialogue between those who are unaware of these issues, and those who are perhaps all too familiar with them. The tools provided, such as the questions, checklists and resource list, provide initial guidance for schools hoping to undertake substantive reforms in the ways in which we educate our immigrant youth, reforms which are certainly sorely needed and long overdue.
University of California, Berkeley
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