New to America’s school system, this immigrant family found itself playing catch-up from the minute they enrolled

The World

Students of new families to America are a fast-growing group, but navigating the US school system can be tough. 

Associated Press

Norma Torres and René Najera moved to Portland from Mexico about a year ago, with their three kids. They got here just before school started. Their youngest, Samuel, started 8th grade at the local public school and didn’t speak English at first.

"The first week was hard, but it got easier after a week because I had friends," says Samuel, in Spanish. "If I didn't understand something, I would ask my friends 'what did the teacher say?' But after a little while, I was able to understand what the teacher said, and also answer questions."

Samuel and his sister say their English is better now. Their parents don’t speak English at all, though, and that made it tough when they tried to figure out the Portland school system. Torres says when they arrived in Portland, officials automatically directed them to the nearest neighborhood schools. 

It wasn't until after the school year started that Najera discovered his kids even had the option to change to another high school, Benson High. It has a better graduation rate, with more hands-on learning. But he didn’t hear about the school from the district, rather through a friend. "And so he told us it was a technical high school, and for us, it was better to have the opportunity for our kids to go to a technical high school," he says. 

"We were told that this was the school that belonged to our address, so that's where we stayed," Torres adds. "But because we kind of dug into more information about it, we found out about more schools and that's why we did the transfer. But it would've been helpful for the school to let us know."

Realizing that far more white parents use the transfer system than families of color, Portland Public Schools has now changed its transfer policies. There's less emphasis on a randomized, computer-based lottery system and more on written petitions. That’s easier for parents without Internet access. Petitions can also be submitted in other languages. It all lets immigrant parents tell their story, and not just throw a name in the hat.

But it’s still a tough system to navigate. Najera transferred his son, Emilio, to Benson High, mid-year. He’s 16 and seems happy with the transition. "It was, like, normal because I know people from Benson," he says. "It was not difficult to integrate with the people, and the teachers, and everything."

Once the Najeras knew about the transfer system, they used it again. They’ve also managed to transfer their youngest son, Samuel, into the technical high school. Having a brother at the school already improved his odds.

But in some ways, what the Najera family has learned about the transfer system — on their own — has been too late. Emilio's older sister, Vivian, didn’t transfer to Benson High in the middle of her senior year, because it would've meant not graduating for another year. Her father says families shouldn’t have to learn about their options by word-of-mouth from friends. "There are a lot of families, more families that need to know this information," he says. "But it’s more like we need to ask and get more information about the schools.”

The parents do say that school officials did a good job of helping the family, once the parents knew what to ask for.