The costs of opportunity

San Jose is the land of opportunity — or used to be, writes Alana Semuels in The Atlantic‘s City Lab. “A child born in the early 1980s into a low-income family in San Jose had a 12.9 percent chance of becoming a high earner as an adult,” according to a 2014 study by economist Raj Chetty. That’s the best upward mobility in the country.

“Children in the 25th percentile of income at birth in San Jose ended up, on average, in the 45th percentile as adults, while kids in Charlotte who started out in the 25th percentile of income only ended up in the 36th percentile as adults,” she writes.

But do today’s poor kids have the same chance to thrive in Silicon Valley?

The percentage chance that a child born in the early ‘80s in the bottom quintile of income made it to the top quintile in selected cities across the country (Datawrapper / Equality of Opportunity Project)

The percentage chance that a child born in the early ‘80s in the bottom quintile of income made it to the top quintile in selected cities.(Datawrapper / Equality of Opportunity Project)

“San Jose used to have a happy mix of a number of factors—cheap housing, proximity to a burgeoning industry, tightly-knit immigrant communities—that together opened up the possibility of prosperity for even its poorest residents,” she writes. “But in recent years, housing prices have skyrocketed, the region’s rich and poor have segregated, and middle-class jobs have disappeared.”

San Jose is a city of immigrants — 38 percent of the city’s population is foreign-born, writes Semuels. Researchers found “a low prevalence of children growing up in single-parent families, and a low level of concentrated poverty.”

Tri Tran and his brother fled Vietnam on a boat in 1986. Tran was 11. They moved in with an aunt and uncle, a semiconductor factory tech and a data entry worker who earned enough to buy a small home.

A refugee from Vietnam, Tri Tran is now a millionaire entrepreneur.

A refugee from Vietnam, Tri Tran is now a millionaire entrepreneur.

Their uncle, who knew highly educated engineers at work, urged the boys to go to MIT. Tran founded the food-delivery start-up Munchery, which is valued at $300 million. “I think that in this land, if you are really determined and focused, you can go pretty far,” he told her. His brother is an engineering professor at Johns Hopkins.

Many of San Jose’s low-income families in the 1980’s were Vietnamese refugees who valued education highly and pushed their children to work hard in school. Others were Mexican immigrants with a strong work ethic. In San Jose, the poor are very likely to be working poor.

I don’t think middle-income jobs are disappearing in Silicon Valley, as Semuels suggests. There are lots of jobs — and not enough housing. A couple with middle-income jobs can’t afford to live here — unless their parents can loan them money to get into the inflated housing market. The median price for a Silicon Valley home is $875,000. The poor are being pushed farther away from the jobs.

A  school for newcomers


PBS Newshour is airing a two part series on how schools are trying to educate immigrant and refugee students.

Las Americas Newcomer School in Houston enrolls newly arrived students who speak nearly 30 languages.  It takes a year or two to understand the language and the culture, says Principal Marie Moreno.

Refugees ‘torn between two worlds’


Students leaving Patterson High at the end of a spring day include, starting fourth from left, Nadifa Idriss, Mona Al halabi, Manuel Maurizaca and Fayza Al halabi. Credit: Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun

At Baltimore’s Patterson High, 370 of 1,100 students are immigrants, including refugees from the Middle East, Africa and Central America. The number has tripled in the past two years, reports Liz Bowie in the Baltimore Sun in part 1 of Unsettled Journeys.

Many of these students “came to escape war, gang violence and starvation,” reports Bowie.

At the Hispanic Psychiatric Clinic at Johns Hopkins Hospital, Donna Fallon Batkis is treating young immigrants who’ve survived kidnappings and rape, “not just rape of women, but sexual abuse of men.”

Reema and Ahmed Alfaheed look at videos of the refugee camp near Iraq-Syria border, where they lived for six years after fleeing Baghdad. Credit: Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun

Reema and Ahmed Alfaheed look at videos of the refugee camp near the Iraq-Syria border, where they lived for six years. Credit: Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun

Thanks to modern technology, students can stay in touch with loved ones  — or watch a beheading in their home country.

Narmin Al Eethawi’s father was kidnapped and tortured in Baghdad. Four uncles were killed.

Her “phone buzzed with Facebook text messages throughout her day with snippets of news from Iraq,” writes Bowie. Her sister is there — and Mustafa, who wants her to return to marry him. “When she got lost in Baltimore and didn’t know what to do, she called 22-year-old Mustafa to help her with directions.”

Even amid the tranquillity of a soccer field, Reema Alfaheed, one of Narmin’s best friends, couldn’t escape. She was on the phone with a friend, a boy in Syria, who was lamenting that, because of the war, he couldn’t play soccer or go to school. Then Reema heard an explosion and people screaming. The phone went dead.

Three days later, she learned her friend had survived the bombing, but was left with a head injury and broken leg.

At his retirement party, Tom Smith, who taught English as a Second Language, encouraged Narmin to break off the relationship with Mustafa and commit to living in America.

Her father, a truck driver, was earning enough for the family to buy a house. Her mother was learning English at community college. Narmin got a summer job at a diner — and a learner’s permit.

By the start of senior year, Narmin “still struggled with English, and anatomy and physiology was a challenge, but she was earning top grades,” writes Bowie. “She wanted a career in medicine.”

She’d decided not to return to Iraq.

Part two focuses on Central American immigrants. Many are here illegally. Exel Estrada, 17, now reunited with his mother after years of fending for himself in Guatemala, works a swing shift as a janitor. “His homework had to wait for the moments he could fit it in: the bus ride to school, a 20-minute free period, lunch or a slow moment during class.”

‘New Americans’ start at community colleges

Minnesota isn’t  just for Larsons, Hansons and Olsons. The state has drawn Latino immigrants and African refugees to rural towns with jobs in meatpacking and agriculture.  “New Americans” are turning to community and technical colleges to move up the economic  and academic ladder.

The Polish orphans of Pahiatua

Children from Eastern Poland who’d been deported by the Soviets, starved and orphaned were sent to a New Zealand refugee camp called Pahiatua in 1944, writes Anne Applebaum in Slate. Despite their childhood suffering and the loss of their families, the children of Pahiatua made good lives in their new country.

On Oct. 31, 1944, their ship pulled into Wellington harbor. More than 750 orphans, from toddlers to young teenagers, and 100 adult caretakers, teachers, and doctors disembarked. . . .  they stayed together, studied together, organized Polish scouting troops, and waited for the war to end so they could go home.

When the war was over, few had anyone to return to. Their former home, Eastern Poland, had been annexed by the Soviet Union. They made new homes in New Zealand. They started new families.

. . .  they had witnessed the deaths of parents and siblings, experienced terrible deprivation, and lost years of education before finding themselves in an alien country on the far side of the world. And yet they learned the language, they assimilated, they became doctors, lawyers, farmers, factory workers, teachers, and businessmen.

We believe children need “excellent schools, carefully organized leisure and . . .  high-concentration, high-focus parenting,” writes Applebaum. The Pahiatua orphans made do with a lot less.

Community colleges reach out to alumni

As state and local funding falls short, more community colleges are reaching out to alumni and former students.

Miami Dade College, which opened just as the first wave of Cuban refugees was arriving, has an active alumni network that supports the college with donations, mentoring for students and service on college committees.

 

Immigrant blacks outperform natives

Africans outperform African-Americans in Seattle schools: Even the children of destitute Somali refugees do better.

The district compared blacks who speak English at home with those who speak other languages at home but aren’t considered English Language Learners.

Amharic-speaking students from Ethiopia scored the highest, nearly reaching the district average in reading. Somalis did worse than other African immigrants, but much better than English-only blacks.

• Only 36 percent of black students who speak English at home passed their grade’s math test, while 47 percent of Somali-speaking students passed. Other black ethnic groups did even better, although still lower than the district average of 70 percent.

• In reading, 56 percent of black students who speak English passed, while 67 percent of Somali-speaking students passed. Again, other black ethnic groups did better, though still lower than the district average of 78 percent.

Black immigrants attend college at a much higher rate than U.S.-born blacks or whites, concluded a John Hopkins study in 2009. The immigrants were educated, successful people in their home countries, researchers said.

However, that’s not true of the very poor Somalis who found refuge in Seattle.

Seattle School Board member Betty Patu, who has worked for decades with community groups serving students of color, said she has noticed that all immigrant families, regardless of socioeconomic status, place high value on education.

“Their motivation is different,” she said. “When you leave your country, you come here to do something. You don’t come here just to sit around and do nothing.”

In short, it’s the culture, stupid.

However, Marty McLaren, a board member and former teacher, blames “a culture of low expectations . . .  dating back to the days of slavery” for American blacks’ poor performance. Faced with institutionalized racism, students give up, she said.

 

 

Teaching compassion for refugees

In New York’s South Bronx, a ninth-grade social studies teacher is spending five weeks on curriculum based on Iraqi refugees’ experiences, reports Learning Matters. The show aired on PBS Newshour this week and will be rebroadcast.

The teacher wants her tough-shelled students to learn to empathize with people who have even worse problems than their own. Students look at photos of refugees and imagine their lives. They’re told to list the 10 things they’d take with them if they had to leave home in five minutes. Later, told they have to dump half their possessions, one boy gives up his electronics in favor of “my mom, my sister, my other sister.”  It’s sweet, but is it social studies?

I can’t help wondering what the students aren’t learning in those five weeks. The teacher is skipping the standard curriculum. What’s the trade-off?

As far as I can tell, students aren’t asked to read literature that deals with the refugee experience, such as The Kite Runner (Afghanistan), which could be a powerful empathy builder. Dave Eggers’ What is the What? (Sudan) is supposed to be good. Too difficult to read?

Refugees and tweets

On Community College Spotlight: Iraqi refugees flood community college English classes; the  valedictorian took her first English class in 2006. Plus: college student suspended for disrespectful tweets.

Hungry for learning

After a Taliban bomb killed their father in Kabul, the Abdul Nabi girls and their family fled to a Pakistani refugee camp. Laila and Jaila cooked, cleaned, sewed and dreamed of going to school. They wanted to be doctors. But it wasn’t possible. Then UNICEF resettled the family in Boston. When they were 13 and 14, Laila and Jaila started school for the first time. It was like offering food to the starving, their ESL teacher, Charlotte Dumont, remembers.

“It was so hard for us to believe we were finally at school,’’ Laila said. “Every day, as soon as we got home, we would study. All we had was our books, and we loved them.’’

. . .  Within 18 months, the two inseparable girls with the long dark hair had made it up to grade level, taking places in mainstream math and science classes, where they shone.

In high school, the girls qualified for honors and advanced placement classes.

They studied through nights, asked for extra help, reproached themselves when their work fell below their own exacting standards. They found time for volunteer work, jobs, and summer leadership camps where they kayaked and hiked. They were ferocious about all of it.

Less than six years after they walked into their first classroom, Laila and Jaila Abdul Nabi earned their high school diplomas. Laila will go to Bryn Mawr on a full scholarship. Jaila will live at home to care for her mother and brothers and go to UMass Boston. Both girls plan to go to medical school.