Migrant children struggle in public schools

With the recession taking a particularly heavy toll on migrant communities, many schools for children of Japanese-Brazilian and other backgrounds have closed their doors after struggling through falling enrollments and nonpayment of fees.

The closures have forced many children of migrants to enter the public school system, a daunting prospect for those whose entire schooling has been conducted in another language and who don’t speak Japanese at home.

To help them better integrate into the public school system, the education ministry launched the “Rainbow Bridge classroom” project last fall, providing additional Japanese-language instruction.

But the ministry is struggling to win over migrant parents, many of whom resist the idea of sending their children to Japanese schools.

There were about 90 Brazilian schools across the country at the end of 2008. The number had fallen to around 60 this February. Many parents lost their jobs, leaving them unable to pay their children’s tuition. Others returned with their families to their home countries.

The Colegio Brasil Japao, a Brazilian school in Minato Ward, Nagoya, had 80 students at the end of 2008, but the number dropped to 49 at the end of last year. Each month, 10 to 20 students failed to pay a monthly fee of about ¥30,000, forcing the school to post a monthly loss of around ¥800,000.

“We have tried our best, but there is a limit to what we can endure,” said the school’s principal, Carlos Shinoda, at a January meeting to notify guardians of the suspension of some classes.

None of the parents said they wanted to send their children to Japanese schools.

Yojiro Arlindo Ogasawara, 40, whose three children attend the Brazilian school, said, “If they attend a Japanese school, they will be left behind academically while trying to learn the Japanese language.”

He continued to send his children to the school, even after losing his job, because he said his eldest son had been bullied at a Japanese nursery school, where he was told, “Foreigners are stupid.”

Many guardians are worried that their children will be treated only as “guests” in public school classrooms unless they know the Japanese language.

“Enrolling in Japanese schools is the last resort,” said a 38-year-old mother. “I would like to continue to send my daughter to a classroom where the atmosphere is warm.”

Thirty-two organizations, including boards of education and nonprofit organizations, were running Rainbow Bridge classrooms in Ibaraki, Gunma, Saitama, Kanagawa, Yamanashi, Nagano, Gifu, Shizuoka, Aichi, Mie, Shiga and Okayama prefectures as of February, to teach Japanese to foreign children. Portuguese lessons are also offered.

“Public schools are given the cold shoulder by foreigners because of experiences and rumors of bullying,” said Akio Nakayama, representative in Japan of the International Organization for Migration, which is promoting the project at the request of the education ministry. “A coordinator at each classroom is visiting families to urge them to take part in the class.”

Besides Brazilians, there are foreign children who can’t attend public schools because they require special assistance, and even if they are enrolled in such schools many refuse to attend.

Although the Rainbow Bridge role in classrooms is becoming increasingly important, Nakayama pointed to the need for schools to do more to assist foreign children.

“In addition to the creation of a framework by Japanese public schools to receive and support foreign children, roles like the one performed by coordinators at Rainbow Bridge classrooms should be institutionalized,” he said.

Such classrooms accept not only Brazilian but also other foreign children.

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