When an American teacher wants a student’s attention, they often ask for eye contact.
In the Marshallese culture, this is not the case.
“If you talk to someone you are supposed to look down, or look away,” said Rose Kabua, who serves as chairwoman for the Spokane Marshallese community advisory board. “It’s not that we aren’t listening.”
“Marshallese are very respectful, but they show it in a different way,” Kabua said.
While such cultural differences may be innocuous on their own, a far more troubling characteristic has taken root in the Marshallese community: Spokane Marshallese students aren’t graduating from high school.
The four-year graduation rate for Native Hawaiian/Other Pacific Islander, of which Marshallese students are a subgroup, was 51.4 percent in 2016. That is the lowest four-year graduation rate reported of any population group in the district.
The district’s overall rate was 85.4 percent. Of the 1,800 English-language learners enrolled in the district, about 25 percent of them are Marshallese.
There is some good news, however. Due to its enrollment of Pacific Islander language learners, Spokane Public Schools recently received a five-year grant from the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction to study the population. The grant provides the district with a total of $225,000 to collect data on the populations in greater detail than was previously possible.
The money will be used primarily to break apart data, said OSPI spokesman Nathan Olson. Currently the district can’t look at the Marshallese population as a subset of the larger Pacific Islander/Hawaii native group. Instead, the two are lumped together despite cultural differences that may affect education.
The same issue can affect how other racial and ethnic groups are treated in data sets, Olson said. For example, there is big difference between an African-American student born and raised in the United States and a Congolese student who just immigrated to the U.S. Currently both students are lumped under the Black/African-American student designation.
Funding for the grant is provided by the federal government, while OSPI distributed the money. Two other districts in Washington with large Marshallese populations – Evergreen in Vancouver and Federal Way – also received grant money.
Washington state received the grant because it is one of only a few states that can break down student data into detailed categories of race and ethnicity, wrote Jenny Choi, a program director at OSPI, in an email.
Heather Richardson directs the Spokane school district’s English Language Development Program. She hopes the grant money, and subsequent study, can begin to clear up misconceptions about Marshallese students.
“I think there is a perception that they don’t value education,” she said. “There is nothing further from the truth. There are other cultural factors that you have to know about.”
One of those factors is the importance of the collective over the individual in Marshallese society. Helping the family, and the social group, is more important than personal achievement or success, Richardson said. Thus, if a Marshallese family needs one of their children to work and help support the family, they might encourage the student to leave school.
“The group is going to take precedent,” she said.
Another possible factor in the low graduation rates is that many of the Marshallese students haven’t received a rigorous formal education in their native language. This makes learning English even harder, said Doresty Daniel, a bilingual Marshallese specialist in the Spokane district.
For a student with a solid educational background it can take between five and seven years to learn a second language, Richardson said. For a student with limited or no prior education that number increases to between seven and 10 years.
Those language and cultural factors combine to affect graduation rates along with a family dynamic that may not put a premium on higher education and financial planning.
Education might seem unnecessary to many Marshallese parents, most of whom didn’t graduate high school, much less attend college. They haven’t personally experienced the value of education over the long term, Daniel said.
“Success is not a big deal to us,” Kabua said. “We only think about today and that is it. Nothing beyond today. You get a big bonus check in the mail it will be gone by the end of the day.”
The islands, a collection of atolls located about halfway between Hawaii and Australia in the Pacific Ocean, offer limited economic opportunity. Assistance from the U.S. government and lease payments on a U.S. military base account for the majority of outside capital, while limited industry is concentrated in agriculture and fishing, according to the International Monetary Fund.
“You need to eat, you go to the ocean to catch fish,” Kabua said. “There really is no point of going to work.”
Kabua said her goal is to help Marshallese families in Spokane integrate. “It’s different here and that’s what they don’t realize,” she said.
There are about 22,000 Marshallese living in the United States. They are concentrated in four states: Hawaii, Arkansas, California and Washington.
Most emigrate from the islands looking for work or for better opportunities for their children. And increasingly, rising Pacific Ocean levels, caused by climate change, are covering portions of the islands’ 29 low-lying atolls.
Kabua and Daniel said the low cost of living, combined with the social services Washington state provides, makes Spokane a desirable destination.
The Republic of the Marshall Islands is located 2,400 miles southwest of Hawaii.
Residents of the islands are able to immigrate to the United States without a visa and may stay indefinitely. The U.S. granted this special status after the islands were used as a nuclear testing area during the Cold War. Between 1946 and 1958, the U.S. military conducted 67 nuclear tests in the islands.
So, as the number of Marshallese students and immigrants increases in Spokane and the United States, Kabua said, it’s imperative that teachers, administrators and politicians learn about the Marshallese culture.
“It’s not that they don’t care,” she said of parents. “And it’s not because they want their kids to be home baby-sitting. That’s not the reason. It’s because they don’t know.”
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.