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South Philly grad’s immigrant experience

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

We’ll pick up the conversation from last week. As an update, we can tell you that school authorities announced measures in an attempt to make South Philly High safer. This includes cameras, more police, and an education program so kids learn how to deal with other cultures.

School District CEO Arlene Ackerman said she wanted the Asian students to come back to school on Monday, and that she would be there to welcome them back and have personal conversations with each one of the affected students. The students returned today.

I spoke with a South Philly High graduate, who is a recent immigrant, about his experience acclimating to the new environment.

The mental health support system in the Philadelphia schools requires parents and students themselves to get involved and overcome issues of access, or wait for the signs to show up in the classroom or around it.

In terms of the service providers, what’s not clear is what happens with communities that barely show up in certain areas of the city such as the Mexican community in South Philadelphia.

David Ramírez, a South Philly High graduate, recalls it was a difficult process coming all of a sudden to a new country where he didn’t know anyone or anything.

"It was hard at the start of the school year," he said. "You’re not with your people, with the ones you know, and though they’re from another country, one doesn’t feel comfortable."

He encountered language issues, alienation, and facing a culture that, he felt, didn’t understand him either.

"People would make fun about my country. And I didn’t like them talking things about my country without knowing how things really were over there," Ramírez says.

From his experience at a Philadelphia public school, he says that while most people at the District don’t really understand the needs of immigrant kids, there’s a few of them that actually really care.

"There are very good teachers… they understand what this new shock feels like," he says. "They know the difficulties that’ll show up and that’s a great help."

Ramírez says he neither knew of nor was ever referred to a specific assistance program while in school.

He gives his family all the credit for helping him finish school and hang in there while he missed his country and all he left behind when he came to Philadelphia over four years ago.

But he thinks that as the immigrant populations grow, there’ll be a need to make their presence be felt.

To do this, Ackerman’s Imagine 2014 plan calls for increasing social service supports, which, according to Anne Deaner, director of behavioral services for the School District of Philadelphia, would give all school access to a resource specialist.

The specialist "can meet with families and school staff and link children to needed social services; in some cases behavioral health, if it’s needed," Deaner said.

The current situation at South Philly High has forced to the fore these issues of safety, behavioral and mental health supports, and cultural understanding.

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