March 15, 2009
Where Education and Assimilation Collide
WOODBRIDGE, Va. — Walking the halls of Cecil D. Hylton High School outside Washington,
it is hard to detect any trace of the divisions that once seemed fixtures in American society.
Two girls, a Muslim in a headscarf and a strawberry blonde in tight jeans, stroll arm in arm. A
Hispanic boy wearing a
T-shirt gives a high-five to a black student with glasses
and an Afro. The lanky homecoming queen, part Filipino and part Honduran, runs past on her
way to band practice. The student body president, a son of Laotian refugees, hangs fliers about a
But as old divisions vanish, waves of
have fueled new ones between those who
speak English and those who are learning how.
Walk with immigrant students, and the rest of Hylton feels a world apart. By design, they attend
classes almost exclusively with one another. They take separate field trips. And they organize
“I am thankful to my teachers because the little bit of English I am able to speak, I speak because
of them,” Amalia Raymundo, from Guatemala, said during a break between classes. But, she
added, “I feel they hold me back by isolating me.”
Her best friend, Jhosselin Guevara, also from Guatemala, joined in. “Maybe the teachers are
trying to protect us,” she said. “There are people who do not want us here at all.”
n the last decade, record numbers of immigrants, both legal and illegal, have fueled the greatest
growth in public schools since the baby boom. The influx has strained many districts’ budgets
and resources and put classrooms on the front lines of America’s battles over whether and how to
assimilate the newcomers and their children.
Inside schools, which are required to enroll students regardless of their immigration status and
are prohibited from even asking about it, the debate has turned to how best to educate them.
Hylton High, where a reporter for The New York Times spent much of the past year, is a vivid
laboratory. Like thousands of other schools across the country, it has responded to the surge of
immigrants by channeling them into a school within a school. It is, in effect, a contemporary
form of segregation that provides students learning English intensive support to meet rising
academic standards — and it also helps keep the peace.
In a nation where most students learning English lag behind other groups by almost every
measure, Hylton’s program stands out for its students’ high test scores and graduation rates.
However, at this ordinary American high school, in an ordinary American suburb at a time of
extraordinary upheaval, those achievements come with considerable costs.
The calm in the hallways belies resentments simmering among students who barely know one