Thursday, Feb. 18, 2010

In a Spanish Classroom, a Ray of Hope

On a recent January morning in Cornellà, just outside Barcelona, eight children are hard at work painting pictures of Planet Earth. Their classroom looks normal enough: student artwork covers the brightly painted walls and cartoon-festooned backpacks dangle from the chairs. But teacher Sabina Esteve has a special challenge: in addition to making sure her charges paint inside the lines and clean their brushes, she has to ensure that they understand even the simplest instructions. After all, most of her students have been in Spain for only a few weeks. Cornellà is the latest city in the region of Catalonia to open an Educational Welcome Space (or EBE; officials are careful not to call it a school). Intended to help immigrant children learn the basics of the Catalan language and adjust to their new surroundings before beginning school proper, these centers represent the best chance Catalonia — where roughly 15% of the population is foreign-born — has for successfully integrating its immigrant children. "We needed to create a first arrival point, not only for the children, but for their families," says Ernest Maragall, councillor for education in Catalonia's government.

Until the recession, that need was growing fast. In 1997, the number of foreigners living in Spain was just over 500,000; 11 years later it was 5.3 million, out of a total population of 46 million. In 2008, Spain received the highest number of immigrants of any state in the European Union except Italy. Although it has largely managed to avoid the outbreaks 
 of xenophobia and immigrant violence that have erupted in other countries, Spain still struggles to integrate its immigrant population.

Take education. The number of schools with foreign-born populations of 30% or more has risen, and although studies on the effects of that concentration are few, one report from the Madrid-based think tank the Royal Elcano Institute found a clear correlation between high levels of foreign-born students and poor academic performance. Based on that data, argues author Héctor Cebolla, "the breach [in performance] between an elementary school that has no immigrants versus one where all the students were born outside Spain is 25%." And the gap doesn't lessen with age: only 1.5% of current university students were born outside the E.U.

Immigration has altered what goes on inside the classroom for both the foreign- and native-born. Because immigrant children are placed in school regardless of the time of year they arrive, instructors find themselves having to interrupt the regular curriculum to attend to the needs of their newest students. As one history teacher, whose class in 2007 began with 17 students and ended with 28, told El País newspaper, "It's impossible to work that way. According to the syllabus, I was supposed to end with the 1990s, but we never got past the Russian Revolution."

The 21 students enrolled in Cornellà's EBE come from countries as diverse as China, Ecuador, India and Morocco. None speaks Catalan, the primary language of instruction, and some have never been in school before. "Here, we can tailor lessons to the individual and teach them language through activities, rather than focusing on subject, verb, adverb," says Dolors Pijuan, director of Cornellà's center. The center also reaches out to the parents of students, offering programs that help them register for health care or show them how to navigate a supermarket.

Some trade unions and civil rights groups have denounced the welcome spaces. "[The centers] stigmatize the students and their families," says Begoña Sánchez, spokesperson for SOS Racisme. "Separating these students is not integrating them, it's segregating them." When the city of Vic, an hour north of Barcelona, inaugurated its EBE in 2008, it sparked protests from immigrant groups themselves. But 18 months later, says alderwoman Ana Erra, the controversy has largely disappeared. "No one is happier with the EBE than the people who use it," she says. "Parents who have had one child go through it always want their other kids enrolled. Sometimes they even try to convince us to take children who are too young."

Once children graduate, they are distributed through Vic's public schools, which prevents the level of foreign-born students in any school from breaking 30%. Parents are paired with native-born "mentors" who introduce them to such concepts as what snacks to bring to a school party. "We'll know we've been successful if, 10 years down the line, 15% of our university students are immigrants," says Maragall.

If only all of Spain embraced the concept. Dressed in a red tracksuit for his second day at Cornellà's EBE, Moroccan-born Hafid, 8, is momentarily flummoxed when his teacher asks him to fetch the black paint. Esteve repeats the instructions carefully and suddenly Hafid's face lights up. "Negre," he says, smiling, as he brings the correct bottle to his classmates.