The scholastic experiences of immigrant learners at a secondary school in Sydenham.
This research set out to explore the scholastic experiences of immigrant learners at a secondary school in Sydenham. Participants were immigrant children from the Democratic Republic of Congo and Burundi. They were aged between thirteen and eighteen years old, and had all resided in South Africa for less than ten years. The study adopted a qualitative methodology using a narrative inquiry approach. To ensure valid data, one-on-one interviews, a focus-group discussion and observations were conducted, as well as document analysis of a diary I asked participants to keep for the duration of the data collection period. This study was based on Ogbu’s (1978) cultural ecological theory of minority academic achievement and Fredrickson’s (1998) broaden-and-build theory. A few findings emerged from the study. Firstly, it was found that language played a critical role regarding academic and social acceptance at secondary school level. Learners who did not grow up being exposed to English (the language of instruction) were disadvantaged academically and often required translation from other peers who spoke their native language. Furthermore, immigrant learners were often excluded from social groups at school due to the fact that they could not speak a South African indigenous language (in this case, isiZulu). These findings supported existing literature regarding the linguistic challenges faced by immigrant students. The second finding that emerged from the study was that a sense of belonging was a crucial factor that determined the scholastic experiences of immigrant learners. Learners who felt isolated at school (either academically or socially) displayed poor academic performance and learners who felt a sense of belonging performed at a higher level. The concept of acculturation was the third theme examined in this study. All participants felt that they could not understand the culture of the South African students. Some of them found behaviours such as smoking, gambling, underage drinking, wearing revealing clothing and teenage sexual activity to be abhorrent, and as a result, did not want to be part of the dominant culture. Others were able to accept these aspects of South African culture without emulating them. The two theories used hold that voluntary immigrants are generally higher achievers; however, this study showed that this is not always the case. An involuntary immigrant was able to achieve high marks, in contradiction to what Ogbu (1978) postulates. The findings were consistent with Fredrickson’s broaden-and-build theory because learners who possessed a high level of resilience produced far superior academic results compared with learners with low levels of resilience.