How a School Network Helps Immigrant Kids Learn

SundayReview | OPINION

By DAVID L. KIRPMAY 30, 2015

IN 1982, the Supreme Court ruled that the children of illegal immigrants cannot be denied a free public education. It’s not their fault, after all, that their parents brought them into this country.

But until recently, 20 school districts in New York State effectively kept undocumented youngsters out of school by imposing bureaucratic roadblocks such as insisting that the students’ parents produce Social Security cards. It took a full-court press by the State Education Department and the state attorney general’s office to end that practice.

There are 4.5 million American-born children of unauthorized immigrants and another 775,000 children who are themselves unauthorized immigrants. Few encounter such brazen discrimination, but many are warehoused in overcrowded, ill-staffed and effectively segregated schools. They drop or get pushed out, prepared only for the brawn work and domestic labor no one else will touch. They live in fear that their families will be deported.

A nonprofit organization, the Internationals Network for Public Schools,delivers a first-class education to these newcomers. Its first school was founded 30 years ago; there are now 19 public high schools and academies in New York City, the San Francisco Bay Area and the Washington, D.C., region. In New York, 64 percent of the students graduate in four years (nearly the same as the citywide average for all students) and 73 percent in six years. Statewide, the rates for English-language learners are far lower — 34 percent in four years, 50 percent in six years. More than 90 percent of students report that they’ve been admitted to college.

These teenagers confront the triple challenge of learning a new language, new academic subjects and the culture of a new land. None have been in the United States for more than four years at the time of admission. Many have spent time in detention camps. About 70 percent have been separated from one or both parents at some point in their lives. They often live with distant relatives, in shelters or on the streets. They are poor — more than 90 percent are eligible for federally subsidized lunches — and about a third hold down jobs.

“Teachers learn how to spot the signs of post-traumatic stress disorder — the girls who were raped, the boys who were pressed into gangs,” Lara Evangelista, the principal of Flushing International High School, in Queens, told me.

Instead of teaching separate English as a Second Language classes, everyclass, from science to gym, is a language class. “There’s a myth that students have to learn English before they do more interesting work, but we engage students in learning through work that interests them, giving them a compelling reason to learn English,” said Claire E. Sylvan, the network’s executive director.

The lesson is taught in English. Those with a grasp of the language translate for newcomers who speak the same home language; students are allowed to discuss complex ideas in their native languages. In a matter of months, the students start speaking English. “In Korea, everything was about competition,” one student told me. “Here it is about helping others — how the group does is central.” A girl from Pakistan added: “When I was at middle school, I was bullied because I was different. Here, everyone is different. My middle-school teacher told me I’d never make it, but this was like magic. In one month I started speaking English.”

Teachers provide the scaffolding that eases the transition to English. “Students are talking with each other and I’m a facilitator,” said a math teacher, Rosmery Milczewski, herself an immigrant from Colombia.

When I visited Flushing International High School, students in ninth- and 10th-grade math were graphing linear and exponential functions to compare the long-term impact of investing in mutual funds, or buying a house or a car.

In science, students were conducting an experiment to determine the effect of different doses of alcohol on the heartbeat of daphnia, a tiny crustacean commonly called a water flea. Twelfth graders proposed research projects: Why have Chinese immigrants clustered in Queens? What’s the economic impact of subways?

Educators call these schools’ hands-on, collaborative approach “deeper learning,” and high schools nationwide have begun to adopt it. Some school officials fear that students educated this way won’t fare well on the high-stakes Common Core exams, but a 2014 evaluation of 22 such schools, including Flushing International High School, conducted by the American Institutes for Research, found that their students outperformed peers on international exams in reading, math and science. They were also likelier to graduate on time and to enroll in four-year institutions, and were more motivated and better at working together.

The evidence shows that the same teaching styles that work at regular schools are just as effective at schools for immigrant kids. It is projected that, by 2030, more than 40 percent of all school-age children will be English-language learners. It’s imperative that they get a decent education.

In April, the White House Task Force on New Americans and the United States Department of Education promised to “highlight effective, evidence-based interventions” for English learners. The Internationals Network’s schools belong at the top of this list.

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