Marshallese students face cultural barrier

From state Department of Education Kaua’i Complex Area Superintendent Daniel Hamada, to Central Complex School Renewal Specialist Barbara Baker, to school-level staff, to community members and parents, Ligaya Ortal, DOE district resource teacher for the ESLL program, has found everyone is willing to help.

Editor’s note: This is the second of two stories about the public-school English for Second Language Learners (ESLL) program.

Captain Mitham Clement of The Salvation Army is one of the “helpful” community members. He has agreed to be included on a list of resource people who can be called to assist as an interpreter for Marshallese students.

He has been called to attend meetings at two schools for his input on how to help students and their families from the Marshall Islands.

Clement was born and raised in the Marshall Islands. He attended elementary, high school, and the College of the Marshall Islands there.

He was sent to The Salvation Army seminary in California, and has been with the Lihue Corps for five years.

He feels grateful to the teachers and others at the schools here. He finds that they go “beyond the call of duty” to help students be successful.

He feels parents have to be involved with the education of their children.

Clement said he doesn’t blame the parents for not being able to help the children. “They probably don’t have the knowledge or abilities to help the kids,” he said.

But at the same time, he feels they can find ways to be a part of the children’s school life.

Marshallese students face language and cultural barriers here, Clement said. Some of the children that come don’t speak English well.

It’s a disadvantage because the “kids here speak their minds” and “express themselves.” Some of the kids who come here cannot do that, Clement explained.

There’s a huge difference between the Marshallese and American cultures, Clement claims. In order to be successful in school, children have to adapt to the culture here, and at the same time keep their traditional customs and practices, he said.

At the College of the Marshall Islands, Clement remembered, he was doing “really, really well” if he did one project a week. When he went to the seminary in California, he had to do five things a day.

“I don’t know if the pace is slower (in the Marshall Islands),” Clement said, “but you can see the shock in a child” who comes here and has to keep up with the pace here.

“It’s not an easy thing to do,” he said.

Clement said the Marshallese, numbering over 100 on the island now (up from 40 just five years ago), are a close com-munity.

Parents talk to him about how concerned they are that their kids are struggling in school. One parent told him that they try to set limits, like going to bed by 10 p.m., but the children like to socialize and watch TV all night long.

Clement knows that schools have programs to better the relationships between students, teachers and parents, but says that Marshallese parent involvement in those programs is low.

Ano Lautiej is another helpful community member and parent. He is available to interpret for Marshallese students. He has been here for seven years now, coming to Kaua’i from the Marshall Islands for job opportunities, and for education for his children.

He enjoys working at Wal-Mart, and said that Wal-Mart “takes care of my family.”

His sister, Hanako Term, came to Kaua’i in August, seeking medical care. She is currently under observation for a kidney ailment.

She called her husband, Alee, to come in September. Their third-grade son came in December.

Alee Term was a teacher in the Marshall Islands. He said his son seems to be doing well in school. He would want his son to have a good education here.

He feels that English is an “international language,” and when they graduate from a school here, they will be able to get a good job anywhere.

Job opportunities in the Marshall Islands are very limited, he said.

Term said Marshallese students get good support in the school, and feels teachers must emphasize English instruction, and must get the students involved with their peers.

The biggest barrier is that the students from the Marshall Islands do not speak English as their first language.

Term said that Micronesians are closely related to the Hawaiian culture. “We are Pacific Islanders,” he said.

Micronesia includes the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI), the three Freely Associated States (FAS) which includes Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI), and the Republic of Palau (ROP), the Territory of Guam, and the Republics of Kiribati and Nauru.

After World War II, CNMI, FSM, RMI and ROP became the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands, under the stewardship of the United States.

The islands later achieved self-determination, and FSM, RMI, and ROP entered into Compacts of Free Association with the United States.

The compacts allow unlimited immigration of FAS residents to live and work in any U.S. territory or state. They are “eligible non-citizens,” which means they can enter, reside, and seek employment in the United States without visa requirements or green-card status.

Ortal said they have an on-going partnership with officials with the Pacific Resources for Education and Learning (PREL).

Hilda Heine, PREL senior scholar for policy and capacity building, is the former president of the College of the Marshall Islands, and secretary of education for the Ministry of Education of the Republic of the Marshall Islands.

She is the first person from the Marshall Islands to earn a doctoral degree in education, which she attained from the University of Southern California in 2005.

In an article posted on PREL’s Web site on Teaching Educators About Micronesian Students (TEAMS), Heine explains that the bilingual-education methods in the Micronesian systems which try to teach the native language and English “leads to students who are cognitively proficient in neither language.”

In the article, Heine displays a chart that shows the growth in numbers of FAS students in Hawai’i public schools between 1997 and 2002, based on ESLL student population.

It shows RMI students numbering 630 in 1997, and up to 1,088 in 2002.

Ortal said that, statewide this year, there are 1,453 RMI students in the ESLL program. She said Kaua’i hasn’t experienced the huge influx compared with other districts. Kaua’i teachers have 31 Marshallese students in the ESLL program this year.

Lautiej feels those in the United States “must take care of us.” Between 1946 and 1958, U.S. military officials tested nuclear weapons in the Marshall Islands.

Lautiej said there are effects of that testing that still linger today. He said he has seen babies born like sea cucumbers, without heads or limbs. He also says there are many types of cancers.

Term and Lautiej feel more people from the Marshall Islands will come to Kaua’i looking for jobs and education. The pair said they write in letters home about the nice, cool weather, and the kind people.

Ortal said that everybody is trying hard to make sure that the ESLL students are provided the best educational opportunities.

“No matter where they come from, no matter what language they speak, if we can appreciate the strengths, the language, the culture they bring with them, and capitalize on that, then I think we are on the right track,” she said.

  • Cynthia Matsuoka, a Lihu’e-based freelance writer, is the former principal of Chiefess Kamakahelei Middle School in Puhi, and writes periodically on education issues exclusively for The Garden Island. Messages for her may be left with Paul C. Curtis, associate editor, at 245-3681, ext. 224, or

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