Dominican Immigrants Face Challenges in New York City Public Schools

While school zoning laws are designed to promote integration among student ethnicities throughout the New York City school system, most Dominicans find themselves in schools of high Latino concentration, particularly in upper-Manhattan and throughout the Bronx. (Photo:

Bureaucracy, language barriers, social stigmatization: newly arrived high school students from the Dominican Republic face unprecedented challenges in their journey through the labyrinthine New York City Department of Education. Along the way, they are confronted by contrasts in expectations that, in the end, force them to reconsider their roles as teenagers in their newly adopted countries.

"I think the role of kids in society is very different," says Patricia Nuñez, 36, a Dominican-American teacher of Spanish at the Bronx High School of Science in New York City. Having spent her summers in the Dominican Republic since childhood, Nuñez understands the underlying differences between Dominican students and their American counterparts. "American kids consider themselves as vital a member of society as any adult. This is something … [Dominican students] consider new and attractive," Nuñez says. Unlike American students, young people in the Dominican Republic are expected to defer to their elders, offering little in the way of insight on their own opinions and conditions. Attending school in New York City for the first time, many of these newly arrived students find the social freedoms offered to their American counterparts both refreshing and liberating. "When they experience it for the first time, it's like 'Wow! People care about what I think!" Nuñez says. Such newfound freedom, however, has consequences in the home. Dominican parents often complain about a loss of control over their children, many of whom quickly become immersed in the culture of the teenage "Dominican Yorker": one who, having shed many of the cultural restrictions imposed on Dominican children by a society in which young people are expected to defer to their elders at all times, has become more outspoken in his or her dealings with teachers and parents, while fusing the broader aspects of Dominican and American culture. Corporal punishment — common in households throughout the Dominican Republic — takes on a different meaning in New York City, where police and school officials routinely intervene in matters that, in the home country, are generally treated as a private family affair.

As the largest exporter of immigrants to New York City, the Dominican Republic is represented by approximately 10 percent of the 1.1 million students within the New York City public school system. While school zoning laws are designed to promote integration among student ethnicities throughout the New York City school system, most Dominicans find themselves in schools of high Latino concentration, particularly in upper-Manhattan and throughout the Bronx. The ghetto-like atmosphere that pervades some of these schools is but one of the many obstacles to full assimilation faced by newly arrived Dominican students.

"If you don't speak the language, you don't feel like you belong," says Bianca Rodriguez, 20, a student at Hostos Community College in the Bronx, who arrived from Santo Domingo two years ago. "No one wants to give you a hand and most don't want to help." Stress is no stranger to the lives of newly arrived Dominican students. Not surprisingly, language barriers are the most formidable obstacle to the success of these students. Such cultural isolation extends into the high school classroom, where Spanish speaking Dominican students are regularly dumped into bilingual classes, and are often treated as a burden on the school, rather than as equals with their English-speaking counterparts. The schools they attend are generally in low-income, high crime areas, and often contain poorly qualified teachers with high staff turnovers. Combined with the challenges posed by their new urban environments, such students often take on a "victim mentality" of one who is at the mercy of the powers-that-be. Students often cope with such stress by separating themselves into close-knit ethnic groupings and are especially susceptible to recruitment by street gangs.

At home, the stress takes a different form. "I think the environment created in the home doesn't create a structured household," says one Dominican-American, who asked that her name not be used. "Many immigrant households don't create the necessary environment for learning, in comparison with wealthier households [in the Dominican Republic] where there is a greater emphasis on education." Indeed, while the vast majority of immigrant families are of the poorer Dominican classes, there is less exposure in the Dominican Republic to long-term schooling for children of these same families. One of the reasons for this lack of exposure, according to Robert Mercedes, Principal of Middle School 390 in the Bronx, and President of the Association of Dominican-American Supervisors and Administrators, is the disconnection which often occurs between Dominican parents — who many times emigrate to the United States ahead of their children — and their sons and daughters, who are often left behind in the care of grandparents or other relatives. "Kids are arriving in the United States without a basic foundation in their own language," Mercedes says. "This makes it more difficult to transition to English." The lack of native-language facility, according to Mercedes, is at times the result of a lax attitude among those children who stay behind in the Dominican Republic and their guardians toward a disciplined education, resulting in the loss of a valuable growth period within the child's educational development. The lack of developmental skills reinforces the isolation felt among many of these same students upon their arrival in the United States. Such students are often at once strangers not only to their new country, but also to their own parents and families — some of whom they may not have seen for years.

Other problems pertain to the more traditional economic concerns faced by low-income families within the Dominican Republic, and their exposure to an American-style system of compulsory education. "Most parents in the D.R. want their children to go to school," Nuñez says. However, in a country where there are no set child labor laws, educating a child — even at a state-run school for which there is no charge — is viewed as a costly endeavor for those families who are struggling to make ends meet. According to the World Bank, 13 percent of children ages 7 to 14 do not attend class because they work outside the home while, according to Unicef, 16 percent of children in the Dominican Republic, ages 10 to 17 are illiterate. Among poor immigrant families, in which one or both parents may have had little or no schooling, the opportunities for the children to attend public school in New York City — despite the obvious benefits — often leads to envy and resentment among the parents. "It's a lot more challenging for the parents to learn English," Nuñez says. "They're not at a good job, and the child is beginning to find his way in society. The child has freedom, and the parents realize this. Meanwhile, the parents see their [own] opportunities dwindling. The parents thus feel a loss of control over their child."

For those students who have successfully negotiated their way through the New York City public school system, a return back to the Dominican Republic usually invites commentary from family and former friends, in tones both admiring and antagonizing. "Many [in the Dominican Republic] don't like returned Dominicans because of the attitudes they bring with them," says Bianca Rodriguez. Such attitudes at times include a defiance of authority, flamboyance, and a general sense of arrogance towards those who they have left in the Dominican Republic. Like many immigrant groups, Dominicans have long viewed the United States as a land of limitless wealth, in which a stay for only a few years can make one fabulously rich. Such myths were reinforced during the 1980's, in which areas of heavy Dominican immigration like Washington Heights became the hub of the New York City crack epidemic. From the Heights flowed thousands of dollars in cash to families back home, offering some old-country neighborhoods opportunities for improvement and reconstruction. While those heady days have since subsided, for many poor Dominican families, sending at least one family member to the United States is still viewed as a way out of the drudgery of developing world poverty. For many of those who have emigrated, a return visit home offers a chance to boast of their newfound success — real or not. Gold chains, baggy jeans and Yankee caps are often the hallmark of the returned Dominican teenager whose independence and self-empowerment often reflect the supreme confidence of the quintessential Dominican-Yorker. But not all Dominicans appreciate such styles. "When you go home, everyone sees you as an American," Nuñez says, "while in New York, you are a Dominican."

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