A Crayon for Iqra

I only knew Iqra's name because it was written in neat, teacher handwriting on her school folder. I asked her if she had homework, even though I knew she couldn't understand what I was asking, so I pointed at the folder, then looked through it to see for myself. Nothing seemed relevant for this tutoring session, so I grabbed some crayons and we colored instead. She looked at me with huge, expectant eyes as I put green Crayola in her little hand -- What am I supposed to do with a stick of wax? I drew a circle. She drew a circle. I drew a line. She drew a line. We continued for the next forty minutes of the session, yielding a sheet filled with pairs of random shapes and squiggles. Productive.

It seems that most of my time spent as a tutor for child refugees to Chicago ends up this way. The kids are from all over -- Burma, Congo, Iraq, Kenya, Malaysia. They're all ages, with preschoolers like Iqra making up the younger side of the spectrum all the way up to eighth graders and a few high schoolers. They came to the U.S. at different times, speak different languages and practice different religions. Some of the kids have lived in Chicago since infancy, others moved here only weeks ago. Some went to school in their home countries, some didn't. They're all grouped together in this cold, white-walled church basement every weekday afternoon, asking tutors if they can help with their homework.

Homework is a challenge for the tutors and kids. It's hard to teach a 12-year-old algebra in forty minutes when they don't know how to count yet. But something has to go down on the worksheet. It's hard to guide a fourth-grader in summarizing a story when they couldn't read in their first language, let alone decipher a chapter of an English chapter book. And it's hard for schools to place kids in an appropriate grade level when they don't know how old they are, and it's hard for kids to get caught up after years of only informal education.

As of 2010, 2.4 million child immigrants lived in the U.S. Those numbers aren't decreasing -- thousands of foreign-born children enter the U.S. every year, faced with an education system unprepared to take them in on top of totally new and unfamiliar surroundings, language and culture. While the national graduation rate is increasing, refugee and immigrants' dropout rates remain stagnant above 30 percent. White, U.S.-born students are three times as likely to graduate as their foreign-born counterparts, and it's not hard to see why. While the U.S. education system is working fine for upper-middle class, college-bound students, it is failing the lower classes. With local property taxes as the foundation of school funding in many instances, wealthy suburban schools thrive while the poorest, most broken schools will remain broken, perpetuating inequality. Schools with huge influxes of immigrant and refugee populations often couple lack of funding with difficulties meeting students' individualized needs and intensive language programs.

Perhaps the U.S. could take a note from Finland. Its population has diversified faster than any other country in the EU in the last 15 years, yet still earned top places in the international PISA tests -- while the U.S. ranked 36th. Many attribute Finland's success to the teachers' prestige trend in other high-performing countries as well); only the top 10 percent of university students training to be teachers are allowed to enter the profession. Finland has also implemented a "positive discrimination" policy in which the poorest, lowest-performing schools are given extra funds -- the direct opposite of the U.S. funding system.

This has been especially helpful to teachers of foreign-born students, who appropriate funds at their schools as they see useful. Some have used funds to hire more social counselling staff, who can smooth the transition to a new country. All foreign-born high school students have individual "social instructors," who counsel students on academics, but also find them friends and act as psychologists.

It may not be realistic for every refugee child to have a personal counselor in the U.S. given the current education budget. But a shift to change the grossly unequal funding for schools or to ditch the ridiculously rigid No Child Left Behind focus on standardized tests is do-able and should be done.

After the kids finish their homework, they rush upstairs to the gym. I don't think there's heating because you can see your verge-of-Chicago-winter breath in it, but everyone just zips their jackets a little higher. Some kids play basketball, some chase each other, some dive into the pile of costumes donated to the center last Halloween. The suburban, white volunteer tutors are racing around the perimeter of the gym with the refugee kids, and I can't help but picture a world in which they all win.