Berkeley author to address Lafayette conference on
migrant students’ needs
By Lou Fancher
Berkeley-based author Lauren Markham’s book, “The Faraway Brothers: Two Young Migrants and the Making of an American Life (Broadway Books, 2017),” tells the astonishing account of a set of twins who escape violence in El Salvador and arrive in the United States as unaccompanied minors. The boys’ unfathomable journey and efforts to establish a new home in Oakland resounds with special and yet all-too-familiar migrant experiences in a time when America’s borders — and how we treat people who cross them — are daily topics of discussion and profound dispute.
Chief among the concerns for many when it comes to undocumented immigrant children is educating, housing and providing basic care for this uniquely vulnerable population. This is one reason why the Mount Diablo Peace and Justice Center’s seventh annual “Creating A Peaceful School” conference is a vital resource for educators, administrators, activists and students.
Being held Feb. 9 on the campus of Springstone School overlooking Las Trampas Creek in Lafayette, the all-day gathering will include Markham as keynote speaker and workshops on mindfulness, peaceful communication and connecting schools to the communities they serve. Free parking and BART transfers, lunch, snacks, ongoing networking opportunities and reduced admission for students are key features.
“This year’s topic — “Building Bridges, Not Walls” — was chosen last summer, way before “the wall” was front-and-center in the news,” says Executive Director Margli Auclair, the Mount Diablo Peace and Justice Center’s executive director. “However, its political implications are obvious. We thought the theme would lend itself to many interpretations, thereby allowing us to accommodate many strands.”
ADVERTISINGAuclair says conference developer Dr. Ian Harris read Markham’s book and selected Markham, the community school program manager at Oakland International High School, as the conference’s featured speaker this year because she is local and has experience addressing the intersection of education and immigration.
“Our local community must reach out to and understand the needs of immigrants, particularly in our schools. Only then can we face the challenges together,” says Auclair.
The first challenge to improving classroom experiences for undeserved students, Markham says, is to understand and acknowledge history before working to create change.
“We historically have made racist conclusions and have had ideologies that say “this kid can’t learn,” says Markham in an interview. “That’s still happening.”
Part of the problem occurs when newly arrived immigrants and English language learners are placed in overly advanced programs without remediation or are infantilized with classes that undermine or undervalue them.
“This is a real-life example,” says Markham, “I saw kids in a high school class where they sang songs and colored pictures of the American flag all day.”
In another classroom, a 16-year-old from Guatemala with the equivalent of a fourth-grade education (which is common, Markham says), required support to access rigorous content. “There needs to be middle ground, with scaffolding to get them to the right place,” she says.
At Oakland International High School, language and content are blended. Students in a biology class learning about cell division will simultaneously be introduced to the necessary vocabulary.
“It sounds simple and not revolutionary, but it is,” says Markham.
Other revolutionary — and welcome — changes she sees in the Bay Area in general are greater focus on community schooling principles and understanding that students’ socioemotional realities impact academic success.
“Every public sector can fall prey to buzzwords that eclipse actual action, but I don’t observe that in the schools here,” she says. “I see educators working overtime to provide quality education to newcomer students. The support systems addressing barriers to students’ ‘success’ now and increasingly have to do with the realities of their lives outside of classrooms.”
Despite stories such as a non-native student in a school on the East Coast whose doodles in a binder were assumed to be signs of gang activity that resulted in his being jailed, suspended and deported, Markham remains optimistic.
“I see a belief and practices in (support of) education for all and a belief that it’s a fundamental right.”
At the conference, Markham intends to send a specific message to emphasize education for all.
“In many ways we think of these things now happening at our border as something that’s happening far away from here. I want to push back on that idea. Unaccompanied minors like the ones I write about in my book will end up in the public school system eventually, at least for a little while. Many people coming into our schools and communities have been affected by the Muslim ban, border policies, family separations, the limiting of asylum law eligibility. It matters on a human level.”
Students, she insists, are more than kids learning math, they’re whole people. How they learn, access the curriculum and ultimately how they are welcomed and educated in communities will determine their and our country’s futures