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Report finds sharp contrasts among Asian American communities

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

Asian Americans and Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders are two of the fastest-growing racial groups in the Northeast. Although these ethnic groups often share experiences with language barriers, immigration, and discrimination, they sometimes differ significantly in their employment, economic status, and educational attainment.

Asian Americans Advancing Justice, a national affiliation of four civil rights organizations that promotes equity for underserved communities, recently released a report highlighting the distinctions within the Asian American and Pacific Islander communities in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there are 23 distinct Asian American and 19 distinct Pacific Islander ethnic groups. The report, A Community of Contrasts: Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders in the Northeast, provides data on 30 ethnic groups, examining differences in their economic contributions, civic engagement, language proficiency, income levels, education, and other areas.

In looking at educational attainment for Asian American communities in Philadelphia, the report finds that 7 out of 10 Asian American adults age 25 or older have a high school diploma or GED. But among specific Asian American ethnic groups, Vietnamese and Cambodian American adults are less likely to have a high school diploma or GED than all other racial and ethnic groups. Only 48 percent of Vietnamese and 52 percent of Cambodian adults 25 years or older earned a high school diploma. Filipinos are at the top with 92 percent of that group earning a high school degree.


When looking at post-secondary success, Asian American adults are more likely than other racial groups to have a college degree, but only 9 percent of Cambodian and 13 percent of Vietnamese Americans are college graduates. These rates are similar to those of Latinos (11 percent) and Blacks or African Americans (12 percent).

The data in the report is contrary to the “model minority” myth around Asian American students. It points out that Asian Americans and Pacific Islander communities are not universally well-educated, and there are several reasons why.

At the high school level, many don’t obtain a diploma because of language barriers. In the School District of Philadelphia, the number of immigrant students has increased, but resources that support language access like bilingual staffing and bilingual programs have declined.

Lori Shorr, Mayor Nutter’s chief education officer, said that massive budget cuts caused reduction to services needed by students who must learn English. In order for these students to excel at math, language arts, and science, the District needs more money, she said.

Bullying and racial harassment have also become central concerns for immigrant students, the report says, affecting their educational outcomes. According to Youth Risk Behavior Survey data, 19 percent of Asian American students in Philadelphia rarely or never feel safe at school, compared to 14 percent of whites.

Asian American students have diverse educational needs. A Community of Contrasts is the fifth in a series of reports that is attempting to promote a better understanding of those needs and others among these populations. Additional regional reports are planned on Asian American and Pacific Islander communities in the South and the West.

Jeseamy Muentes contributed reporting.

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