OSU Researcher Finds Barriers For U.S. Born Children Thrust Into Mexican Schools

Jun 6, 2017

The Trump administration's crackdown on illegal immigration has divided some families. For the families that remain together, life in Mexico can be hard, especially for children who've never called the country home.

Ohio State University researcher Sarah Gallo is a Fulbright Scholar in the state of Puebla.  She studies the children, many of them born in the U.S., as they struggle to read and write in Spanish.

Ohio State professor Sarah Gallo
Credit Sarah Gallo

"Even though everybody is guaranteed schooling in Mexico, the reality is it can often take months or more for many kids to even access schooling," Gallo says.

Gallo says unlike many American schools, those in Mexico don't have curricula for students who speak Spanish as a second language.

"So that means if you come and you don't know academic Spanish, there's no additional teacher or any teacher training to say when you have a child who comes into this classroom, how do you help them learn academic Spanish, to read and write in Spanish.  It's more of a sink-and-swim type of situation." 

For more on the issues facing American-raised children thrust into a new world, Gallo spoke with WOSU's Debbie Holmes.

Debbie Holmes: I understand you're looking at students in five schools who came to Mexico since 2014. What do you want to examine more closely?

Sarah Gallo: I really want to see the classroom realities. What happens when you're transitioning into Mexican schools and in the state of Puebla where I'm doing this research most of those schools are in smaller communities so there are schools of maybe 400 or 500 students. They generally speaking are not as well resourced as many schools are in the United States.

And so what I try to understand this phenomenon more, I've found that there is very little research that looks at the actual transition. That looks at the day-to-day schooling practices and the challenges as well as the great strategies that people draw upon to think about how to support students schooling when they're transitioning into Mexican schools.

Debbie Holmes: So what are the challenges that you're seeing?

Sarah Gallo: So one of the main challenges just as a starting point is access. That the process of enrolling in Mexican schools is a highly bureaucratic process in which you have to show a great deal of documentation about your previous schooling records and school records that aren't parallel to the Mexican system.

Now how many students in all do you have that have come from the U.S.? That's a great question. I would say I'm going to say approximately a 100. Simply because in some of the schools for example one school I'm in has about 450 students, I know 32 of them were born in the U.S.

Debbie Holmes: What are they saying about the issues that they're experiencing?

Sarah Gallo: One of the main issues is that there is no parallel to English as a second language within Mexican schools. So that means if you come and you don't know academic Spanish there's no additional teacher or any teacher training to say when you have a child who comes into this classroom how do you help them learn academic Spanish to read and write in Spanish.

It's more of a sink and swim type of situation. And so if you don't have those resources you have to figure them out which, is very challenging.

Debbie Holmes: And another challenge these students face is social isolation?

Sarah Gallo: This doesn't happen with everyone. It varies tremendously, but these are small towns.

It's also a place that is a federal curriculum that is very nationalistic in nature. And so oftentimes kids who come in with different experiences, different educational resources knowing more English than Spanish they don't fit in. And often times they can experience forms of bullying and social isolation within their school as well.

Debbie Holmes: Are some of these students falling behind then in grades?

Sarah Gallo: It is very common so Victor Zuniga and Ted Hamann have done research more on a national level within Mexico looking through surveys how many kids tend to repeat a year if they have come from U.S. schooling. And I think they found a three or four times more likely. 

Many of the kids I've interviewed, spoken with as an ethnography I spend one day a week in schools with each of these different students, have repeated a grade.

The students I'm working with now are so new in the transition that many of them are in their first school year. We're going to see what happens at the end of the year.

Debbie Holmes: Do some of them talk about missing the U.S. or not understanding why they had to leave?

Sarah Gallo: Yes. I mean I think always the question of understanding immigration policies, practices, the realities of in all their families there are some people who have U.S. documentation to go back and forth to reside in the U.S. and some people who don't.

Kids are very savvy. This is no longer the day and age where kids have no idea about documentation status because our immigration practices and media make it necessary that they understand them to practice to protect themselves to protect their families.

And so there are certainly things that they miss about the U.S. There are also things that they enjoy about being in Mexico. I don't think about it as this one time transition that even for kids I know who have been here for seven years there's an eye towards maybe they'll be returning to the U.S. for schooling or work in the future.