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Jamaican students find sucess in S. Fla. schools

There's a quiet trend in Broward and Dade classrooms; first- and second-generation Jamaicans and other West Indians are finding remarkable success

 

By STEVE HARRISON
sharrison@MiamiHerald.com
  During a conversation with his Advanced Placement economics students several years ago, Nova High teacher Davis Kiger made a striking discovery.
  Almost all of his black students' families were from the Caribbean -- mostly Jamaica -- and few had any long-standing ties to the United States. He estimates today that 15 of his 17 black students are West Indian.
  ''It seems they are really stepping up to the challenge,'' Kiger said. ``I'll tell it like it is: Their families are coming for economic reasons, and there is a real drive for them to succeed.''
  Kiger's observation is indicative of a quiet trend in local classrooms: First and second-generation Jamaicans have had success in schools, especially when compared to other black and Hispanic students.
  An analysis by The Miami Herald of 2005 FCAT data shows that Broward and Miami-Dade students born in Jamaica scored noticeably higher than American-born black students. Jamaican students in Broward did slightly better than the state's Hispanics.
  Two other studies and interviews with local educators show that second-generation Jamaican students also have achieved, though they lag far behind white non-Hispanics and Asians. The picture isn't all cheerful, however, as many Jamaicans -- especially low-income students -- are struggling, attending poorly rated schools.
  As Caribbean immigration has surged in Florida, there are now more people claiming Jamaican ancestry in Broward than in any other U.S. county, including New York City's boroughs. While one in four blacks in Broward are Jamaican and one in two are West Indian, their impact in classrooms far outweighs their already large numbers.
  When Sakeena Gohagen was in the fourth grade, her schoolteacher mother heard about the National Achievers Society, a service and support group for top black students that's sponsored by the Urban League of Broward County.


APPREHENSIVE

  Sakeena -- born in Florida to parents from St. Mary Parish, Jamaica -- was excelling in school, but the Gohagens were apprehensive about joining. They weren't sure if they belonged because the Broward group's members were rooted in the American South, having been in the United States for generations.
  That was eight years ago.
  Today, most of the new members have ties to the Caribbean. The majority of the parents board is from Jamaica, including the president and two vice presidents. And Sakeena, a high school senior, is the state student president.
  ''When I first joined, I sat in the back row, unsure if I fit in,'' said Sakeena, who is weighing scholarship offers from the University of Florida and Florida State.
``Now, when I look at the new inductees, they are almost all from the West Indies. I just think it's our culture and values, that so much is placed on education.''
  In the mid-1990s, a study led by three sociologists called the Children of Immigrants Longitudinal Study found that Broward and Miami-Dade students of Jamaican descent in middle and high school had higher GPAs than Haitians, Nicaraguans, Cubans, Dominicans and other Central Americans.


COLLEGE NUMBERS


  Nationally, a 2005 Princeton University draft study found that immigrant black students -- many from the Caribbean -- are attending colleges at higher numbers than their representation in the overall population.
  The gap is widest in the Ivy League universities, where more than 40 percent of the black students are classified as non-native. That's compares to about 9 percent in the overall population.
  Sakeena's close friends at Nova High are West Indian, mostly Jamaican. Though the second-generation students occasionally slip into speaking lyrical Jamaican patois, they are, in their dress and style, American. They live throughout Broward -- in Miramar, Weston and Plantation -- far from the West Indian enclave of Lauderhill, or ''Jamaica Hill'' as it's known.
  Much of the distinctive accent of their parents has been chipped away, though it's resurrected when they gently make fun of their parents.
  ''It's funny,'' said Nova student Jovone Brown of Miramar. ``Our parents can't really speak proper English, but they will enforce it on us.''
  Sakeena's friends and parents offer the same explanation for their success: Jamaica's British-style schools give students a good foundation. And for students who were born here and never attended Jamaican schools, they say their parents are obsessed that their children don't squander the opportunities in America.
  ''You have parents who will kick their kids' behinds if they don't do well,'' said Jamaican William Billy Hyton, owner of an air shipping company in Broward whose children attended school in North Miami-Dade. 'Here, students have `rights.' Over there? You have the right to learn.''


GOOD SELF-IMAGE


  Some experts who have studied Jamaican immigration question whether the schools are as good as Jamaicans boast. But scholars say most Jamaicans benefit from a positive self-image, the legacy of growing up in a black-majority country where slavery ended in 1833 and blacks are in positions of power.
Perhaps the biggest factor: Those allowed to immigrate to America are better educated and more skilled than the average Jamaican.
  As with the Cuban experience more than 40 years ago, the first significant wave of Jamaican immigration to South Florida came after Prime Minister Michael Manley nationalized much of the nation's leading industries in 1974. He once famously said: ``Jamaica has no room for millionaires. For anyone who wants to become a millionaire, we have five flights a day to Miami.''
  ''What happens in Jamaica today is that the elites stay because they have the power,'' said Douglas Massey, a Princeton sociology professor who has studied the makeup of the black population at American universities. ''It's the upwardly mobile and aspiring professional classes that leave.''
  It can feel ''like a slap in the face'' when Jamaicans' achievements are praised in comparison to native-born black Americans, said Don Bowen, president of Broward's Urban League. But, he believes their success is strengthening the black community, just as waves of immigrants have done for the white community.
''It shows the powerful effects of growing up in this country,'' Bowen said. ''They have come from a place with a different orientation toward education.''
Silverer Grant moved to Fort Lauderdale in 1981 when she was 18 with her mother and sisters. Her husband came several years later and started a business hauling construction material.


TOP STUDENT


Grant's daughter, Taneisha, a high school sophomore, was a top student at Country Isles Elementary in Weston, but her grades slipped when she reached Indian Ridge Middle in Davie. Her mother reacted swiftly, taking away her daughter's privileges. Taneisha rebounded, became a fixture on the honor roll and joined National Achievers, where her mother is the treasurer.
  Taneisha's first year at Fort Lauderdale High -- which she chose because of its prelaw magnet program -- strained her relationship with her mother.
For the first time, she socialized with African Americans who embrace a hip-hop culture. She was thrust into a world where Haitians, Jamaicans and American blacks sometimes squabbled, asserting their nationalities.
  ''We would get into fights,'' said Silverer Grant, a nurse. ''She had one foot in [the African American] community and one foot at home.''
  The Grant family's position -- straddling black American culture and West Indian culture -- is not unique in South Florida.
  Some American blacks say some Jamaicans have been too slow to become active in the PTA or other school issues, such as a recent legal battle to ensure equal resources at black schools and white schools in Broward.
  Jamaicans bristle at that label, though they admit they have a different perspective, seeing America as a land of opportunity instead of seeing its past and present racism. Some Jamaicans sum up their beliefs with an island expression: ''We came to America to drink the milk, not to count the cows.''
  ''They don't understand the complexity of the racial issue here,'' said activist Janice Boursiquot, a key player in the past decade's school equity struggle in Broward County.
  Boursiquot remembers a Jamaican mother who was upset that her son had been suspended from Seminole Middle in Plantation.
  ''She was in tears,'' Boursiquot said. 'She said to me, `We are not black Americans. We came here and we worked hard. Why are they treating my son this way?' ''


SOME STRUGGLE


  And not all Jamaican students perform well in class. Many parents work two or three jobs, making it difficult for them to monitor their children's progress.
''I won't sugarcoat it,'' said Shirley Lyndsey, a Jamaican-born guidance counselor at McArthur High in Hollywood. ''Not every kid from the Caribbean does well. Some just get caught up in the television, the cellphones,'' she said.
  Sakeena, the Nova senior, has discussed with her friends establishing an AfricanAmerican club at Nova, where students could discuss their divergent roots.
  Though she calls herself African-American, she will go to great lengths to celebrate her Jamaican heritage. She and her friends have often decided, on a whim, to designate a random school day as ''Jamaican Flag Day,'' where they wear the country's colors.
  ''We'll wear our beaded necklaces, or we'd work with our unified dress code: green tops and yellow skirts,'' Sakeena said. ''We'll just say, 'Hey, we're celebrating on this day.'
''Our generation -- the second generation -- we can go in and out of it,'' Sakeena said.


Posted on Wed, Jan. 25, 2006 

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