Sunday, 30 March 2008

Struggling Asians go unnoticed

By Azam Ahmed and Darnell Little Tribune reporters
March 30, 2008

If her native tongue was one commonly spoken in the U.S. instead of the less familiar Khmer, Thana Ouk might have more help at school.

She would have access to classes in her language and programs attuned to her cultural heritage. Her mother, who speaks no English, would be better able to communicate with teachers.

But Thana, a junior at Roosevelt High School, is Cambodian and can find few services tailored to her needs. Instead, she falls under the broad umbrella of "Asian" for public school funding and testing purposes.

Because many families of Asian heritage are well-educated and have comparative material advantages, and because students in the broad Asian category often perform as well as or better than white students on standardized tests, resources are scarce for Asians who are struggling in public schools.

But Thana is struggling with her schoolwork, especially reading. Her four older siblings never graduated from high school, and now the 17-year-old is fighting to avoid the same fate.

"I've been here, like, ever since I was born, but I'm not really fluent with language," said Thana, a slight girl with black hair and plastic frame glasses. "Sometimes I'll be reading a story or something in the book, and then I'll somehow get lost in the wording."

Some educators have begun to call disadvantaged Asians an invisible minority, unseen because their low test scores are masked when lumped with higher achieving counterparts.

These students, often from Southeast Asia, go unnoticed for other reasons too. Their numbers are small. There's a dearth of bilingual programs in their languages, counselors fluent in Asian languages and culture and advocates in general. Few schools can communicate with their parents who don't speak English.

At an Illinois State Board of Educationmeeting this year, several activists urged the state to report Asian achievement scores by specific ethnicity instead of lumping them together.

"Why not separate them so that everyone can use [the data] to help their own people?" asked Juanita Salvador-Burris, who argued at the meeting in Chicago. Many Southeast Asians, in particular, arrive as refugees from war-torn countries, and their children struggle with poverty and language—challenges not always shared by other Asian ethnicities.

"These kids need the same kind of supports that other groups . . . receive—extensive academic, remedial and socio-emotional support," said Sally Ewing, a former principal at Passages Charter School, which is run by Asian Human Services, a social services agency serving Chicago's pan-Asian community. "When you talk about funding grants . . . we have to be much more powerful in our case because there is this myth that Asians are doing very well."

A 2002 U.S. Department of Education study—one of the rare national reports examining Asians by ethnicity—found that Southeast Asians, including Cambodians, Laotians and Hmong have reading and math scores comparable with Latino and African-American students.

California, home to about one-third of the country's Asian population, is one of the few states where the public school system separates Asian students' test scores by ethnicity. For all 8th grade Asians, 64 percent are passing in English, a rate higher than whites across the state. Cambodians and Laotians, however, are passing at a 30 percent rate.

"We have students, sometimes ages 15 to 16, who come from refugee camps [and] have never held a pencil or opened a book," said Richard Norman, principal at Senn High School on Chicago's North Side. "They struggle just like any of the other minorities in the school."

But some argue that because of what they call the "model minority myth"—a belief that all Asians excel in academics—those who struggle do not receive the same attention as African-American or Hispanic students.

"There are also a lot of outside organizations that work to help improve [African-American and Hispanic] scores," said Alvin Yu, a director at the Chinese Mutual Aid Association in Chicago. "There are fewer working toward those ends for Asians, partially because of this perception."

Southeast Asian populations in many school districts are relatively small. Asians make up only 3 percent of the student population in Chicago Public Schools.

"There's a bigger challenge when it's a very small group and not as well-established a community from which to draw either teachers or assistants," said Ross Wiener, policy director at the Education Trust, a reform think tank in Washington, D.C.

Of the nearly 30,000 Southeast Asians in the six-county area, most are concentrated in Chicago, primarily the North Side neighborhoods of Albany Park and Uptown.

In Ouk's case, her mother, Tha, came from a family of farmers in Cambodia and had no education. During the genocidal rule of the Khmer Rouge from 1975-1979, much of the educated class was exterminated. Tha Ouk fled with her family in 1978 and spent the next seven years in refugee camps before securing visas to the U.S.

Now she lives in a small Albany Park apartment with four of her grandchildren and Thana, subsisting on a mix of public assistance and what help her older children can provide. At home, Thana speaks in Khmer, though she mixes in some English with her nieces and nephews, who are half-Cambodian and half-Puerto Rican.

After school, Thana spends most days at the Cambodian Association of Illinois, a newly renovated community center on the North Side. There, she attends workshops, teaches traditional Cambodian dance and receives tutoring. She says she feels uncomfortable getting help elsewhere.

"When you ask [a] question, [teachers] look at you like, 'What? You're asking me the question? Aren't you supposed to be the smart one?' " she said with a plaintive smile. "I was like, 'No. . . . I'm the same as everybody else. I don't see why you're looking at me that way.' "


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