How About the Rest of the Story?

The following column was originally posted by Kettle Moraine Publications on October 3, 2012. It is quite probable that any embedded links may no longer be active. By republishing these columns from our archives, we hope to establish and focus on the pattern of our declining education system ~ Ed.

Parents and teachers have a daunting responsibility. And one of their responsibilities is to promote critical thinking in the children entrusted to their care. This entails guiding children through careful consideration of all the facets of a reality or issue. This critical endeavor, therefore, requires, in age-appropriate fashion, that the entire picture be provided. Such is not what seems to have happened recently in a civics presentation at Mary Ellen Henderson Middle School in Falls Church City, Va. And, for all we know, this may not be an uncommon occurrence in many of our schools.

Our purpose is not to single out Mary Ellen Henderson Middle School (or the individual in the story that follows). The school has high academic standards. Indeed, the school recently announced that it would be modeling itself after the standards of the well-performing school system in Finland, which produces socoolme of the best-prepared students in the world.

The standards will require all teachers to have a master’s degree, or be on track to achieve one. Teachers will only be recruited from the top 15 percent of graduating classes and classes will soon each have two teachers, i.e. will be co-taught. The following incident is simply an illustrative, concrete example of well-intended, but perhaps misguided, academia. And, who knows, we may, in the process, be doing our part to promote Mary Ellen Henderson Middle School’s high academic standards.

A thoughtful seventh grader came home from school one day with questions about a civics presentation given to the entire seventh grade class. Keep in mind that civics is the study of the theoretical and practical aspects of citizenship, and includes the study of civil law and civil code. Civics thus considers, among other things, the process of lawful entry into the country. Seventh grade civics teacher, Rory Dippold, had invited a long-standing custodial staff member from the school (for the fifth year in a row) to share the story of her journey from Southeast Asia to the United States, and her subsequent naturalization and integration into American society; a touching, educational exercise it was – or so it seemed.

What was not clear were some of the details of the early part of her journey. This curious seventh grader pointed out to her father the curious complexity of the presenter’s circuitous journey: her stop and stay in Thailand, her journey without her spouse, her apparent lack of resources, and, post-arrival in Texas, her inclusion on the welfare rolls of the United States for her and her four children until she was able to find employment. The sketchy details left even this seventh grader wondering if perhaps the woman had entered the country illegally.

In the mind of some, of course, the question of immigration status is but a minor (perhaps inconvenient) detail that can easily be glossed over because we have “bigger fish to fry”; and, in this case, the presenter’s story is otherwise fascinating and moving. But this is a class in civics. And the whole picture was not given; and thus an opportunity for critical thinking was not given; and thus academic excellence was not achieved. Why had important details about exactly how this person had arrived in the United States – a key part of an immigrant’s journey from the perspective of a civics class – been omitted?

The student’s questions piqued the curiosity of her father, who took it upon himself to contact the teacher. On Friday, September 14, an e-mail was sent:

Hi Mr. Dippold,

My daughter shared with me a presentation by one of the FCCPS [Falls Church City Public Schools] staff yesterday in her civics class, which she indicated you arranged. I have several questions related to the presentation, so please let me know a good time we can chat by phone.

Thanks.

Mr. Dippold wasted no time and, 10 minutes later, responded with proposed times for the requested telephone conversation. Early that afternoon the conversation indeed took place. When asked for more precise details about the employee/presenter’s entry into the country, i.e. her then-immigration status, as part of the larger story of her migratory journey, Mr. Dippold did not know how to respond. Oddly, then, instead of researching the question (perhaps by simply asking the presenter?), in order to be able to provide a simple answer – which would have sufficed and ended the inquiry, he transferred the question to the principal, Seidah Ashshaheed, who, in turn, did not really know how to respond. In a telephone conversation with the parent, Ms. Ashshaheed initially defended Mr. Dippold (a somewhat unusual posture to assume when trying to hear and work with a parent). When it was brought to her attention, however, that there was no accusation, but a simple highlighting of fact and a question, she tempered her defense. She then put forward a hypothesis: a possible visa (even though the employee/presenter’s status at the time of her entry into the United States was actually still unknown). For inability to respond well, and perhaps discomfort, however, she, in turn, transferred the question to the superintendent of the Falls Church City Public Schools, Dr. Toni Jones. What began as a simple question had become a much larger issue.

During the early course of conversation on September 19, Dr. Jones emphatically stated that she could assure the parent that the Asian-born employee was legal; but such was not the issue. The parent was also told that it is a privacy matter, which is odd to state when the employee was publicly sharing her story. Dr. Jones also emphatically stated that the employee had come to the United States legally, a statement that she quickly retracted when pressed about details: “Under what precise government program did she come?” Dr. Jones had originally made mention of a government program, but was unable to give any details, and quickly moved away from her statement. Was she operating under presumption, because such details, in her mind, are just not important, and vague answers suffice? For this parent, vagueness was insufficient. After all, he was dealing with an academic institution, and academic institutions ought to strive for precision. The parent, in his last correspondence, made an eloquent point: “A civics class striving for academic excellence would have done more than what had been done, and would have also highlighted how her journey – from the beginning – relates to citizenship. If this is the case, it behooves the school, Mr. Dippold in particular, to provide the exact information pertaining to her entry into the country.”

At this point, it was becoming a matter of principle and an issue of intellectual honesty, and so the parent persisted in wanting to know. A few days later an answer surfaced. Dr. Jones telephoned the inquisitive parent, declaring that the employee had entered the United States under a United Nations program.

Now, this is entirely plausible. As the Census bureau states, “After the Communist takeover of Southeast Asia in 1975, hundreds of thousands of refugees began fleeing Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.” In fact, between 1975 and 1989, “almost 850,000 Southeast Asian refugees were admitted to the United States.” And, as the Migration Policy Institute reports, Thailand had been the staging arena for the resettlement or repatriation of some of these refugees. And the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees had been involved in this process. But the final decision regarding her legal immigration lay with then-Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), and the woman in question had to have been issued some sort of visa. The precise question of the employee’s exact visa remained, and was posed to the superintendent for the sake of thoroughness and clarity – and principle – by the parent: “This is also, as you know, a sensitive and sometimes uncomfortable topic that we cannot, however, circumvent, but which, on the contrary, requires honest inquiry and explanation, for the impressionable minds of seventh graders.” Almost three weeks after the initial conversation with the school, the question remains unanswered.

In the end, the issue is not this particular person or her immigration status then or now. It may even sound like a case of splitting hairs. The issue is that of academic integrity, and thus that of providing the entire picture, of giving the equivalent of late American radio broadcaster Paul Harvey’s “… and that’s the rest of the story”. A teachable moment was wasted, a golden opportunity was missed. The emotion of the story of this woman’s journey was surely very touching. But a class in civics demands more. In this case especially, a class in civics demands exploring the issue of immigration to the United States and, therefore, the uncomfortable distinction between legal and illegal, and the various ways in which the former can occur. The parent had suggested that the students be given a second presentation by the teacher that would complete the picture. As he said in his correspondence with Dr. Jones, “I am hoping that the class will have an opportunity to explore this missing part of the story and finish the important lesson in civics.” There was talk by the school of trying to do a better job vetting its speakers in the future. This is important, but what about “the rest of the story”?

Written by Dominique Peridans and published at Center for Immigration Studies October 3, 2012.

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