How Immigrant Youth are Impacting Education
When Mandeq Mahamed transferred in 8th grade, she was prepared for the inevitable changes associated with starting out fresh at a new school. What she did not expect was to be forced into retaking the same English Language Learning (ELL) classes that she had already completed at her old school. Though she was frustrated because she had not even been tested before being placed in ELL, she complied because the school promised she would be exempt from two of the four required “regular” English classes if she continued with the program. However, two years later, the school went back on its word. She ended up having to work twice as hard as her peers in order to complete all of the required courses in half the time. “There was nothing I could do because I was just a student,” Mandeq said, “my voice didn’t matter.”
School is supposed to be an institution that fosters learning in students - a place of great opportunity where teachers support creative thinking and encourage students to challenge themselves. Unfortunately, for many of Minnesota’s young immigrant students, this educational ideal is not always upheld. Structural exclusion and racial prejudice are daily obstacles. Students report feeling as if there are “big gaps” present between themselves and their pupils and teachers, and that the required ELL classes are often repetitive and too simple. CrossingBarriers is an organization dedicated to helping these students develop the skills they need to address systemic barriers hindering their learning. The organization gives youth the opportunity to have first-hand experience in community organizing and encourages students to speak out about issues affecting them.
When Mandeq discovered CrossingBarriers through another student, she began to realize that she was not alone in her struggles. She met current and former immigrant students who also felt they had been unfairly treated in school. One student had been forced to take ELL classes until her sophomore year despite her many requests to teachers to be allowed to move on. Another girl had her hijab ripped off by a security guard in school. Mandeq and the other students participated in issue-based organizing with CrossingBarriers and discovered the enormous impact that young voices can have in the community. She became more confident in her own abilities and more passionate about helping other struggling immigrant students, “We have to break the cycle. If you break it, it makes it easier for the next student that doesn’t have to go through the same thing that I went through.”
To ensure the cycle does indeed break, the folks at CrossingBarriers have been putting all their efforts towards achieving long-term systemic change. The organization hosts workshops for police officials and African student unions to address the profiling and mistreatment of male East Africans by local police and encourage communication between the two groups. The organization is also working on the Eden Prairie Education Project, which calls upon administrators, students and parents to come together and address the systemic barriers affecting the school district’s quality of education. A recently completed a video for the project features immigrant students speaking about the challenges they’ve faced in the Eden Prairie School District. This video has been incorporated into ethics training sessions for teachers and administrators at the district. View the video online here.
Though achieving long-term change is rarely a simple process, CrossingBarriers' executive director Ladan Bashir Yusuf is confident in the work of the organization and its student leaders, "Society doesn't put enough investment in young people and doesn't really encourage them to speak out. But once you give them the tools they need, there's no stopping them - the sky's the limit.