Transcript of the episode “Malign neglect: School systems fail immigrant students”

[00:00:15] Jon M: Hi, I’m Jon Moscow. Welcome to Ethical Schools. My co-host, Amy Halpern-Laff, will be with us again next week. Our guest today is Stephanie Carnes. Stephanie is a bilingual, trauma-focused social worker with extensive experience working with Central American immigrant students and their families in New York’s Hudson Valley. Her consulting firm is Creating Cultural Competence. We previously interviewed Stephanie in March of 2020. Welcome back, Stephanie. 

[00:00:44] Stephanie C: Thank you so much for having me, Jon. I’m so excited to be back with you.

[00:00:48] Jon M: You said that the pandemic is a magnifying glass for the structural inequities of the American education system. What do you mean?

[00:00:56] Stephanie C: We’ve seen study after study and studies that are coming out even now about how the ripple effects of the pandemic across education are really widening that achievement gap that we saw before the pandemic between white students and students of color and, you know, while some of those effects were inadvertent, others could have really easily anticipated and, as a result, mitigated. So I think it’s becoming increasingly hard to deny the fact that our public education system is a tool of systemic racism. It is a tool that maintains a marginalizing racist status quo. The demographics of American public schools have changed a lot over the past 50 years, but the overarching policy mandates that shape those school systems have not. So when we look at demographics, Black American students represent just under 15% of the US population, but Black students make up the majority in 21 out of 22 of our largest school districts in the country. By comparison, white students make up about 46% of the public school population, and that’s a number that’s decreasing pretty rapidly, but the guiding philosophy of public education continues to assume a pretty homogenous population. Latiné students make up the fastest growing population in American public schools, with Central American immigrant children being the fastest growing subset of that population. So again, that population, that demographic, looks very, very different from what was imagined when these policy mandates came out in the 1970s. 

[00:02:34] Jon M: How well does the education system serve recent immigrant students from Central America with whom you’ve worked closely? 

[00:02:42] Stephanie C: I’ve observed anecdotally in my work as a bilingual trauma therapist who worked in a school and, you know, research is really upholding as well. And I feel like the prototypical doctoral student beginning my sentences with “research has shown that,” but it’s true that when immigrant students land in an American public school, whether they’ve just been released from a shelter program, whether they’ve just crossed the border, whatever their situation, their motivation to succeed academically is really, really high, particularly when compared to other demographic groups of students. Education is often seen as a path to a better future. Education is the conduit to the quote unquote American dream. And I’m using that in very sarcastic air quotes nowadays, but that motivation has been shown to decrease pretty precipitously the longer that students are in public school. And Latiné students have the highest dropout rates and are least likely to go on to college of any subgroup of American students. So, you know, that’s sort of a head scratcher that makes us, or should make us, pause and say what is happening here. And what I think is happening is that we have this huge disconnect between whom schools were designed to serve and whom they’re currently serving, who’s walking through their hallways. whom they’re not serving, I guess I should say. And I want to be very clear here that I’m not pointing fingers at teachers or administrators. This is much bigger than that. This is a full-scale systemic failure. 

[00:04:12] Jon M: What are some of the concrete ways that this manifests itself?

[00:04:18] Stephanie C: That’s a great question, Jon. So I think, first and foremost, this is something I’ve really seen in my day-to-day work as a school social worker, but schools are microcosms of broader society, right? And broader American society, if I may, hasn’t really been a bastion of tolerance recently, particularly for students of color or Latiné immigrant students. So when we work from that school as society perspective, why would these students want to come to school, to take risks intellectually, sort of put themselves out there if they didn’t feel safe or welcomed or understood in the first place.

As I continue in my doctoral studies, it also makes me realize that we have to think a bit about the narrative that surround these students in research. So if you do a quick skim of the articles written about educating immigrant or non-native English speakers, and I encourage everyone to do this. When you have a moment, just hop on Google Scholar and take a look at what comes up. The literature is completely negative. It’s completely deficit oriented. And what I mean by that is that these students are almost always conceptualized as problems that education needs to fix. So when you think of certain approaches to English language acquisition, right, certain ways that ENL programs are designed, certain states that have English language only classes that explicitly ban the speaking of native languages for immigrants, there’s almost no consideration given at the research level, at the policy level, or at the day-to-day building level. There’s no consideration given to that incredible cultural wealth and those assets that are unique to immigrant students, that I think ultimately enrich the learning environment for everyone, for the teachers, for the other students, for the staff, for the immigrant students themselves. These are enriching attributes that are just being totally overlooked. There seems to be also an overarching assumption made that the collective immigrant experience, prior to coming to the US, wherever you are is crummy, that all immigrant students are SIFE students. So students with limited or interrupted formal education, or just generally that the quality of education they receive in whatever home country they’re coming from, is lousy, is subpar.

And in some cases that’s certainly true, you know, in some Central American countries, free public education stops at fifth grade, but I’ve also worked with immigrant students who’ve attended really prestigious private schools, who have far higher quality educational backgrounds than an inner city American students. I recall back to my work with a 17-year-old a few years back who earned her certification, and I have to get the terminology right, in social media marketing, from a pre-college program in Guatemala. So, you know, not only is this deficit-laden rhetoric really damaging, obviously, but it’s also sometimes plain wrong and that’s something that needs to be addressed. 

While we’re on the theme of assets. I just want to give you an example of some of the unique assets that these students bring to our schools and our communities. So in my consultancy, I’m very lucky in that I get to work with districts that want to better understand so that they can better serve their immigrant populations, their diverse populations, because all districts have diverse populations. When you look below the surface and this district that I’m thinking of right now, It’s a really great proactive district that wants to do right by its immigrant students and happens to have a large and growing population of immigrant students. And this district had this super detailed strategic plan in which it described all of these ideal student characteristics upon graduation.

So this is stuff like resilience, adaptability, flexibility, perseverance, what you would like your ideal high school graduate to possess. And as I was reading this plan, it sort of smacked me between the eyes that there was one group of students in the district that already had this type of social emotional wealth, or these social emotional superpowers, if you will, really, by virtue of their lived experiences and you know, their ethno-cultural backgrounds. And that population was the growing population of Guatemalan immigrants. So again, I just think there needs to be a wholesale reconceptualization around immigrant students and what they mean for public education. Because when we allow ourselves to get sucked into that deficit driven vortex, we completely miss the boat.

You know, you hear a lot about diversity and inclusion. You hear a lot about cultural competence. We need more than cultural competence. We need more than inclusivity. What we need is an actual commitment to, to real honest, critical reflection on these systemic failings. 

[00:09:05] Jon M: So what would be some things that, for example, the school district, like you were just describing that wants to do the right thing. What would be some of the things that the district can do that makes students feel safe? That is not looking at students from a deficit orientation? What would you recommend? 

[00:09:26] Stephanie C: So, you know, I think districts have to first develop a nuanced understanding of what’s going wrong, because until you understand the scope of the problem, you can’t really start putting solutions into place. So oftentimes we want to fix things. We want to be solutionists. And I think there’s a real need to step back and say, okay, what is the experience of immigrant students right now in school, and what’s really resonated with me and become very obvious from my experiences as a school-based clinician is the phenomenon of identity trauma. So I recently conducted a study about the experiences of school social workers, particularly related to burnout. I wanted to see if my experiences were an anomaly. And one of the questions that I asked about was the prevalence of trauma in school social worker case loads. So, “has trauma increased, decreased or remained the same in students throughout your career?”

And one school social worker responded, and this is a direct quote, “the education system has been a trauma saturated environment for nonwhite students since it started.” And I’ve heard very similar sentiments echoed from students of color, including immigrant students. So the impact of what I’m calling identity trauma, particularly for immigrant kids, immigrant students, is that they want to distance themselves from their cultures and languages and heritage so that they can be accepted by their peers in their new society so that they don’t have to feel othered.

These are the kids that said to me, Miss, please don’t speak Spanish to me in the hallway or, and you know, and this is another direct quote, “I wish I was American because us Guatemalans are so backwards.” And this is really heartbreaking, not just from a humanistic perspective, but because it highlights the ways in which kids, and I think particularly teenagers, internalize the xenophobia, the nativism, the political rhetoric, what they hear in the media, just this sort of toxic maligning of their identities on a regular basis. Teenagers, I think, in particular, are really, really good at scanning their environment and sort of sussing out what people think of them, and then adjusting and calibrating their behavior and their public personas accordingly. And it can be really damaging when what they’re confronted with on a day-to-day basis is negative. And it’s more than just heartbreaking. I think, you know, we’re starting to see some of the long-term effects of this type of identity trauma. Back to my favorite start of a sentence, research shows longitudinal outcomes in children who are immigrants. Children who are immigrants that are able to develop a bicultural identity have far better outcomes, really across the board. So educational, mental health, physical health, a culture [unintelligible] stress. They all seem to do better when they can develop a bicultural identity. And a bicultural identity simply means being able to retain meaningful connections to their country of origin, to their culture of origin, to their heritage, as well as starting to connect with their new country and community. So these are the kids who can have sort of a foot in both ponds if you will. And then when we look at the flip side of that coin, students who can’t develop bicultural identity, who are stymied and prevented from that, have poor outcomes pretty much across the board.

So they report lower self-esteem, more significant mental health concerns, somatic or body related complaints, substance abuse. They’re also more likely to drop out and they just don’t do as well in school. And again, this isn’t just my observation, although my observations do [unintelligible] what I’m saying. This is really being found to be true in a lot of empirical studies that are being done on biculturalism.

[00:13:08] Jon M: So it sounds as though from what you’re saying, that there are a lot of different factors. So for example, you know, students feeling that, as you were saying, that they don’t want to be identified, say, as Guatemalan. They wished they were American because whatever. And obviously some of this involves the community. It involves family relationships. It involves what’s going on in the school. So what are some of the things that you would like to see each of, I don’t like the word stakeholder, but I’ll use it. What are some of the things you’d like to see each of the stakeholders in the school and more importantly, in students’ lives, be doing that would make things better?

[00:13:51] Stephanie C: So, unfortunately, Jon, when it comes to solutions, I find myself with far more questions than I do with answers. Because again, I think when there’s a systemic failure, a systemic response is necessitated. I think, as a society, we need to really think about, do we want our system to be oriented to those we used to serve or do we want our system to be responsive to the population that we increasingly serve? And of course the flip side of that is something we want to consider. What are going to be the knock on effects of an antiquated and unresponsive school system over time?

A few ideas. I have to try to move the needle forward. Some of them aren’t unique. There’s lots of debate and conversation around this right now, which is wonderful. I think there needs to be a strategic re-imagining at the systems level. And I think that that system redesign has to happen through a collaborative process in which stakeholder perspectives are front and center. And historically, stakeholder perspectives have meant loud, rich, white people. But when I say stakeholder perspectives, I mean that if your school is majority Latiné, and there’s no one on your school board who’s Latiné, then we have a big problem here. I mean that parent groups, I mean that student groups representing these different demographic facets of society, need to be included in the planning process because these voices have been marginalized for so long and are so rarely included in the policy and system design process. I think that there needs to be a critical look at teacher preparation and teacher education program design. I’m not a teacher. I’m not pointing fingers at teachers at all, but I think that particularly when it comes to bilingual education, the power of harnessing student assets needs to be front and center in designing curricula and understanding how we approach a group of kids. And I think at the systems level, there’s not a whole lot of collaboration right now between school helping professionals and educators, and both hold such critical pieces of the puzzle to student success. You know, that I think more conscious efforts need to be made to bring those groups together as stakeholders, that inform policy. And part of that is my own bias as a school social worker who didn’t get to have a lot of say in policy development, despite bearing witness to all these student perspectives, stories and suffering, that voice was not really solicited in policy planning. Better to have the students themselves informing policy, but a social worker is also a great catalyst for social justice and positive change at the systems level.

[00:16:30] Jon M: I think you’d mentioned in an article that you wrote that I was reading that the schools sometimes seem to silo people and whereas the evidence is that collaborative efforts tend to work better. Am I remembering that correctly? 

[00:16:50] Stephanie C: You’re absolutely remembering that correctly. Research has shown, here I go again, that the single most influential factor to effective school social work, and this is identified by school social workers themselves, is interdisciplinary collaboration, but the reality of it is that social workers aren’t really being invited to the table. Some of the characteristics that make us really want to be social workers are some of the same characteristics that make us crummy at advocating for ourselves and making our voices heard. But again, one of the key ethical obligations of a social worker is to speak up for marginalized populations. And we’re really good at that, which is why I feel that our role in schools, as schools are increasingly diverse, as schools are increasingly serving populations that have been denied collective voices historically, this is why social workers are so important as advocates and as policy experts really.

[00:17:46] Jon M: What are some of the ways that teachers and other school people can become more knowledgeable about their students’ cultural backgrounds? And have you seen situations where professional development has included teachers and other school people going into the community, not to teach, but to learn and become acquainted with students’ families?

[00:18:12] Stephanie C: So I’m thinking about the best ENL teacher I know, who understands that her students have super powers to offer. And there’s a relational piece there that comes before any academic knowledge, before any content delivery. Many immigrant students have been through a lot. And obviously, you know, I’m saying this euphemistically. Many immigrant students, particularly those from Central America, have been through hell, for whom a sense of safety has oftentimes been denied. The teacher has an opportunity from the moment the student walks through that door to begin creating a sense of physical and relational safety. When that is conveyed, when a student sees that this is a person who values them as a human being, the story will come, the cultural education will come, because the teacher will have already conveyed that they are receptive to that learning. They’re receptive to stepping out of that teacher power dynamic, right, to stepping out of that traditional teacher as authority, student as learner on whom knowledge is bestowed at the teachers’ whims. It equalizes the playing field of that power dynamic so that cultural education can go both ways in a really safe and affirming way.

[00:19:31] Jon M: Are there similarities between the trauma experienced by immigrant students and non-immigrant BIPOC students? 

[00:19:40] Stephanie C: That’s a wonderful question. And it’s one that I, as a white female social worker, don’t feel super comfortable answering because my work has predominantly been with Central American immigrant students. You know, there are certain common threads to all traumatic experiences. There are certain threads to resilience that are universal across groups that have endured hardship. I would imagine there are similarities, and I would look directly to resilience to find some of those similarities in terms of students. I don’t have a whole lot of expertise to contribute, but I’m currently analyzing data from the school social worker burnout study, and a really interesting finding and stay tuned for more, is that BIPOC school workers reported the lowest scores of burnout across the demographic groups of school social workers that we surveyed. So pair that with the comment I mentioned earlier that school systems have always been racist, invalidating, marginalizing systems for BIPOC folks, combine that perspective with the lowest burnout level. So here we are functioning in a traumatic system yet we have the lowest levels of burnout. And that to me speaks very clearly to resilience, to race driven resilience. I don’t want to say too much on it because I haven’t sort of pulled it that thread enough to speak competently on it. But I think it’s very telling that our BIPOC school social worker friends are seeming to find ways to survive the system in ways that white social workers have been less able to. And perhaps that’s because BIPOC social workers have had to survive as BIPOC humans in an invalidating and racist and marginalizing society. That I don’t know, but more to come. 

[00:21:35] Jon M: What you talked about a little bit about students who successfully develop a bicultural identity? Could you talk a little bit more about what that looks like? What is a bicultural identity?

[00:21:47] Stephanie C: Sure. So a monocultural identity, to understand bicultural, we have to take a peek at monocultural. Monocultural identity would be someone who, an immigrant who either entirely abandoned their connection to their heritage, to their ethnic identity of origin, wholesale and totality, or the other end of that spectrum is someone who completely withdraws into their community and culture of origin. So these are kids who maybe only speak Spanish, only navigate in a Spanish speaking community, don’t really have connections to their society, their new host society. And that’s understandable at the beginning, right. That’s just part and parcel of acculturation. Bicultural identity on the other hand, those are the kids who are able to speak English and speak Spanish. Those are the kids who are able to play for the school soccer team and still feel a sense of pride in their national soccer team back in Guatemala. And again, I’m being very reductive, but I want to give a succinct overview of these concepts.

[00:22:54] Jon M: Are there things that you’d like to add that I haven’t asked? 

[00:23:00] Stephanie C: You know, just sort of a caveat on this study that I’m presenting. I don’t mean to speak for all white school social workers nor do the perspectives of white or BIPOC social workers in my study represent the collective BIPOC or indeed school social worker experience. The study was about 172 school social workers around the country, and I’ll be excited to share the full findings down the road. 

[00:23:25] Jon M: Then what would be some of the ways that you’d like to see the schools integrate the school social workers more into the planning process and decision-making processes?

[00:23:37] Stephanie C: That’s such a great question. What I think is really clogging the pipeline for interprofessional collaboration between school social workers and educators, school social workers and administrators, is just role confusion. There are so many opinions and ideas about what it is that a school social worker actually does. And I think until that’s clarified and until there’s a common understanding, I think it’s going to be really difficult to move forward. I think there’s a lot of mistrust around the way the social workers perceive administrators and their MOs. I think there’s mistrust. Maybe school social workers can sometimes be a little bit territorial. I know that I probably could. I think that space needs to be made for dialogue first and foremost, because there is so much confusion and conflict around what it is that a school social worker does. And I think once that is cleared up and once there’s that common understanding, then I think you can move on to your priorities, my priorities, and our shared priority. And moving forward in an agenda setting in a way that is more collaborative.

[00:24:42] Jon M: I can imagine just from what you’re saying, there’d be a number of different ways of defining what the school social worker’s role should be. What would you like to see ? I mean, from your point of view, what would be an ideal role for the school social work?

This is a tricky one because most school social workers are tasked with providing special education related services. I was not, I was in a very unique host setting. The school social worker is obviously considered someone who has clinical expertise, who supports student academic outcomes by facilitating wellbeing. And I would love for school social workers to be viewed as the experts on student mental health and the challenges, the socioeconomic challenges, the societal challenges, that students face, because if we’re making educational policy without considering those factors, implementation is going to be really challenging.

Thank you, Stephanie Carnes.

[00:25:42] Stephanie C: Thanks so much, Jon. 

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