Two years after she emigrated from Jerusalem to the U.S., San Francisco resident Buthienah Taha made what would prove to be a significant decision for her family when her first son was born in 1981: her children's first language would be English.
Taha has five children, two of whom still attend schools in the San Francisco Unified School District.
"If you go to college, you have to learn to speak English, so the first language has to be English," Taha said of studying in both Jerusalem and the U.S.
While Taha's decision was important to her children's future, they were schooled by a district that happens to be a national leader in addressing the needs of immigrant students and students of immigrant parents.
Taha's children -- who were also raised speaking Arabic -- are among the more than half of California youths ages 16 to 26 who are immigrants or the children of immigrants, a number revealed in a first-of-its-kind report for the state released today by the Migration Policy Institute.
The study, "Critical Choices in Post-Recession California: Investing in the Educational and Career Success of Immigrant Youth," recommends decisions that could be made by policymakers and education leaders as California recovers from the economic crisis.
Pressing issues include financing, implementation of new academic standards and future directions for California high school, post-secondary and adult education systems, said Margie McHugh, director of the migration institute's National Center on Immigration Policy and one of the three co-authors of the report.
"Very often, people think separately about immigration and issues like education," McHugh said. "[But] one really can't come up with the right prescription for education reform without understanding that a large portion of the student population comes from immigrant families."
The study provides an analysis of the educational experiences among California's first- and second-generation youths. It focuses primarily on several school districts statewide, including those in San Francisco and Oakland.
In the 2012-13 school year, 26 percent of students in San Francisco and Los Angeles public schools were English-language learners, the second-highest figure after Oakland, according to the report.
San Francisco received high marks for its language-immersion efforts that began four decades ago with the activism of Chinese parents. In 1974, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a landmark decision that led to the creation of the Lau Action Plan, consisting of bilingual education programs for English learners.
In 2008, after the SFUSD was found to be lacking in access for English-language learners, a new Lau Action Plan was developed that led to San Francisco becoming one of the first large school districts nationwide to implement distinct pathways to school success for recent immigrant students, the report states.
Twelve public schools in The City now offer newcomer pathway programs in which students learning English receive educational, emotional and transitional support, said Christina Wong, special assistant to the superintendent for the SFUSD.
A newcomer student receives an "intensive double block of English-language development and other transitional support so they have a smooth orientation into our school system," Wong explained.
But issues linger statewide because California already faced a lagging education system, despite recent developments such as the 2013 implementation of the Local Control Funding Formula to curb budget cuts during the recession, according to the report.
"The big problem is that so many young adults aren't going to benefit from these changes happening now," McHugh said. "They graduated at a time when there were enormous cutbacks, and they're still at a critical point in their lives."
She continued, "If they don't have a high school diploma or equivalent, or two years of college, they are not going to be fully productive members in the workforce and community."
And while California's high school graduation rate is climbing -- it reached 80 percent for the first time in the 2012-13 school year -- and San Francisco's has remained steady for years at just above 80 percent, the number of English-language learners who graduated in 2013 was just 63 percent.
Study cites lack of adult education
The adult education system in California has been decimated in the past six years and needs to be rebuilt to meet the needs of young adult immigrants, according to a study released today.
Nearly 30 percent of first-generation immigrants in California ages 21-26 lack high school diplomas, compared to 13 percent of all youths statewide, according to the report "Critical Choices in Post-Recession California: Investing in the Educational and Career Success of Immigrant Youth."
Enrollment in California's federally funded adult education courses peaked in the 2008-09 school year, then declined each year through 2012-13, with the number of students served dropping by more than 50 percent, the report states.
The report also reveals that even before the recent recession and state budget crisis, California's adult education programs had the capacity to serve only a limited share of the state's population with low levels of basic skills or limited English proficiency.
Bill Ong Hing, a law professor at University of San Francisco and founder of the Immigrant Legal Resource Center in San Francisco, was not surprised by the report's findings.
"Part of the problem is there needs to be more invested in ESL programs," Hing said. "It's not that the ESL programs are ineffective, but there's not much investment in them right now."
Hing pointed out that City College of San Francisco repeatedly sees a waitlist for English as a Second Language classes.
"That's strong evidence that not only are there not enough ESL classes, but also other types of adult education classes that immigrants would benefit from," Hing said.