Marshall Island immigrants are working to strike a balance between immersing their students in English while also retaining their cultural heritage in Springdale, Arkansas. This has proven difficult, as their state mandates that only English be taught in classrooms.
In 1987, Arkansas established a new law banning languages other than English being used to teach students. Arkansas is currently among the majority of states; only 19 states allow for other languages to be used in classrooms, according to PRI.
This has posed a problem for the Marshallese population in Springdale. After an influx of Pacific Islanders immigrating to the school district from 2009 to 2015, Springdale has the largest population of Marshallese in the U.S.
In 2015, Marshallese students accounted for 12 percent of Springdale’s 12,472 student population. While the district had an overall graduation rate between 71 and 89 percent in 2014 and 2015, nearly half of students hailing from the Pacific Island did not graduate.
Marshallese students have been held back by their language skills. In 2015, Springdale attempted to correct this problem by establishing a pilot Pre-K Center to drill multilingual children to focus solely on English.
While acclimating immigrant children to the English language can be a constructive step forward, it comes at a devastating price. Multilingual students who are encouraged to speak only English can suffer from long-term learning difficulties.
Literacy and language specialist Rachel Hazlehurst warns that many immigrant children suffer dire consequences when they are forced to adopt English and abandon their native language.
“If there’s a disconnect between students’ home identities… and what’s promoted by the school, students are more likely to disconnect, disinvest, and experience educational failure,” Hazlehurst told The Atlantic.
“[When] children lose their home language skills, we as educators have a serious problem… fractured communities are created when families can no longer [talk] on a deep level about issues that matter,” Hazelhurst added.
Marshallese linguist Alfred Capelle has recommended that Springdale open up bilingual charter schools, where students would be taught in both their native languages and English until at least sixth grade.
While that proposition awaits funding, a Marshallese college group called the Manit Club is trying to offer mentoring to multilingual students in the school district. This fall, the club is starting a new program to mentor multilingual students in their culture and native language from middle school through high school.
One of the club’s mentors, 21-year-old Benetick Maddison, actually had to relearn Marshallese in preparation after having it drilled out of him as a young student.
“I believe that we can give them good words of advice because we, too, were once like them,” Maddison said.
California voters adopted a law in 1998 that ended most bilingual education, but they will have the opportunity to retract the mandate this November. If Californians pass Proposition 58, they would end English-only teaching and would free up school districts to adopt bilingual programs, The Los Angeles Times reports.