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November 6, 2006

Education professor joins cross-national study of the children of immigrants

By Jennifer McNulty

More than half the students in many schools in the United States and Europe are the children of immigrants, but nations take very different approaches when it comes to educating immigrant youth, said Margaret A. Gibson, professor of education and anthropology at UCSC.

“There is widespread agreement that schools play a critical role in integrating these new members of society,” said Gibson. “But policies in such areas as bilingual education and religion in schools vary dramatically.” Differences in educational structures, practices, and policies also affect student academic success, and preliminary evidence indicates that they also shape immigrant economic and civic integration, she added.

Gibson is a lead researcher on a major three-year, cross-national research and fellowship program funded by the National Science Foundation to improve understanding of the role of educational institutions and policy in the integration of children of immigrants.

Coordinated by the Social Science Research Council, the “Children of Immigrants in Schools” project will enable five research teams to investigate the impact of different tracking mechanisms, the organization of the transition from school to work, and the factors that foster student engagement and success among ethnic- and language-minority students.

Research questions will be examined through comparison of two countries that highlight the effects of different policies and structural arrangements. The project will also train graduate students to conduct the kind of cross-national comparative research needed to gain an international perspective on education and migration.

Each team will be made up of an American principal investigator, a European partner, and three or four research fellows. Gibson will lead a study of Mexican and Moroccan immigrant youth in the U.S. and Spain. Other studies will focus on Dominicans in the U.S. and Moroccans in the Netherlands; Mexicans in the U.S. and North Africans in France; and West Indians and South Asians in both the U.S. and Britain.

Gibson’s team will carry out field research at Watsonville High School and North Monterey County High School, and two comparable schools in Barcelona.

“We’ll be looking at how immigrant youth negotiate the cultural, social, and linguistic borders they encounter on their path to educational success, and how these processes of negotiation impact students’ sense of belonging to the school community, their participation in school activities, their access to school resources, and, ultimately, their academic achievement.”

Comparing the experiences of Mexican and Moroccan immigrant youth makes sense because many of the youth come from households where their parents have little formal education, have limited knowledge of the host language or its system of schooling, and are concentrated in low-level jobs, said Gibson.

Not traditionally welcoming of immigrants, Spain has nevertheless experienced a rapid influx of immigrants, especially along the Mediterranean coast, she said. Like California, where nearly 50 percent of public school students are Latino, Barcelona and the Catalonia region of Spain are now home to high concentrations of immigrants. “About one-third of Spain’s immigrants come from Africa, with the majority from Morocco,” said Gibson. “In some neighborhoods, up to 90 percent of schoolchildren are the children of immigrants.”

Gibson’s team will focus on four themes:

• Comparing large comprehensive high schools in California to smaller high schools typical in Catalonia;

• Exploring the ways in which schools are both “welcoming and unwelcoming” of immigrant and minority youth, and identifying ways to reshape unwelcoming aspects;

• Examining the influence of peer interactions on achievement and social and academic integration;

• Understanding the effects of gender on student engagement and achievement, and how schools shape gender models that may impact students’ academic trajectories.

Gibson will work with anthropologist Silvia Carrasco of the Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona and two visiting scholars from Spain. Anna Rios, a UCSC education doctoral student, will conduct her dissertation research in Spain, and Gilberto Conchas, associate professor of education at UC Irvine, will be a visiting scholar in Barcelona

“It's exciting to be part of this larger international network,” said Gibson, who began fieldwork at the California schools in October. The fieldwork in Spain will take place between January and December 2007.

NSF is funding the project through its new Partnerships for International Research and Education (PIRE) initiative, while the Nuffield Foundation is supporting six European postdoctoral fellows who will carry out research in the United States, including two who will be based at UCSC to work with Gibson.


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