Cross-posted from CultureStrike

High school is tough for every kid, but when you don’t speak the same language as your peers, all the anxieties of young adulthood are amplified as your voice gets lost in the crowd. The Global Action Project brings us the story of Lobsang, a Tibetan immigrant who deals with bullying, language barriers and just plain awkwardness as a teen growing up in the city.

New York public schools are filled with kids like Lobsang, struggling to learn English and adjust to the social pressures of life on the social and economic margins of their city. A report by the New York Immigration Coalition shows that English Language Learners (ELL) have lagged far behind other students in academic performance and graduate rates:

Barely a quarter of ELL students in the New York City’s class of 2006 graduated high school– less than half the rate of English Proficient students. This represented a decrease of 9% from the 2005 four-year ELL graduation rate of 35.3%. Nearly half of ELL students drops out of school after seven years.

The lack of resources across the public education system means that students with special needs are often ignored, despite the state’s responsibility to ensure equity in educational standards and access.

Barriers of language and culture affect whole families as well, often preventing parents from engaging in their children’s school community and putting their children at an even greater disadvantage when it comes to advocating for educational resources. For many low-income immigrant communities, according to the New York City-based Advocates for Children, unequal access to schools effectively segregates immigrant parents and their children in the public education system:

Parents and service providers told us that language continues to be a major barrier to immigrant parent participation in many schools. In response to the survey statement “I am able to communicate with my child’s school in my home language,” an overwhelming majority of respondents stated “sometimes” or “never’” while little more than one fourth of parents reported that they were “always” able to do so. For example, in one focus group, a Spanish-speaking parent described attempts to visit her child’s school in Queens twice, but she was turned away both times because no one in the school spoke Spanish or offered an interpreter. As a result, she has not attended any parent meetings and is unable to resolve problems that arise in the school.

Interestingly, though, the barriers at the forefront of Lobsang’s mind don’t necessarily have much to do with politics or education policy. They’re more about the everyday challenges of learning how to be himself and to feel like he belongs. The holistic impacts of linguistic, ethnic and racial difference in the city’s diverse communities are harder to measure. And if young people lack the political power to restructure the entire school system, they can at least respond to the crisis by reaching out across cultural lines and building solidarity. As Lobsang tells us, in his native language, “Sometimes words are not enough. I know this is happening all over. We are stronger when we come together.” That’s one of those lessons you only learn outside the classroom.

Learn more about youth media activism at the Global Action Project.