NEW YORK - For Cawalla Charles getting out of high school was not an option, but it was not an easy task either.
"I knew I had to graduate because my parents gave me no other choice. It almost seemed at times as if the system was designed against us passing. It seems as if no matter what we did, there was always a problem with some requirement." A recent graduate from South Shore High School and a recent immigrant from Haiti, Cawalla found South Shore to be completely unsupportive in her aim to graduate on time.
"Here I was trying my best to grasp the language and succeed, yet I found very little help in terms of English instruction to learn the language and any kind of technical support to ensure I was meeting the requirements I needed to meet to get out of there."
Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein were ebullient when they recently announced that the city's graduation rate of 63 percent was a record. But the graduation rate among non-native English speakers is still at a staggering low 33 percent in 2009.
More than 13 percent of the New York City School population is considered English Language Learners, or ELLs. English Learners are classified as students who speak a language other than English at home and score below proficient on English assessments when they enter the New York City school system.
Division of School Support and Instruction Deputy Commissioner Eric Nadelstem says that the smaller school model is contributing to the rise in graduation rates among high school students. "For 10 years the high school graduation rate was stagnant in New York City, but with the Mayor's policy of closing down failing schools, we have seen vast improvements." Nadelstem, a long time education expert is the founder of Internationals High School, a network of school for recent immigrants, which now have a graduation rate of more than 90 percent.
Chancellor Joel Klein has received a lot of criticism for closing down more than 20 large high schools. These schools have been replaced with 216 new schools that focus on specific interests, ranging from law, community service to food and fashion. If the individualized attention model works for the broader student population, one is led to ask if it would not work for the struggling immigrant population as well.
In the end, Cawalla did graduate and went on to Borough of Manhattan Community College. "I just wonder how much further I could have been if I truly had a support system," she wondered.
Advocates for the small school model say smaller schools provide one-on-one support to struggling students, and the specialized programs create more enthusiasm towards learning as they match the specific interests of the students.
Nancie Adolphe is a product of Brooklyn International, a small school where over 79 percent of the students have limited English proficiency. "I arrived here from Haiti and it was a real culture shock for me, but the small school environment really made it that much easier for me to understand and follow. Our teachers were very receptive. I was able to graduate on time and go on to City College, a four-year school. Many of my friends were not as lucky as I was to have such instruction."
According to the DOE, it offers extensive services to English Language Learners in the form of 3 programs. Transitional Bilingual Education programs include language arts and subject matter instruction in students' native languages and English, as well as intensive instruction in English as a second language. As a student develops English proficiency, instruction in English increases and native language instruction decreases.
Dual Language programs provide half of the instruction in English and half in another language, often the native language of the majority of ELLs. Freestanding English as a Second Language programs provide classes in English.
However, as of Spring 2010, according to DOE's Office of English-Language Learners, only two New York City high schools, Midwood High School and Clara Barton High School, had Transitional Bilingual Education programs to assist students.
Clare Sylvan, the founding Executive Director of the Internationals Network for Public Schools, works to provide services for recently arrived immigrants by growing and sustaining a strong national network of International High Schools. She also works to influence policy decisions for English learners on a national scale. Ms. Sylvan says their students do well because they take a hands-on approach with their kids.
Darnell Benoit of Flanbwayan, the Haitian Literacy Project, says that the city really does need to do more to implement programs in the schools that will provide these kids the necessary tools to get out of high school successful.
"An immigrant child who enters the school in elementary school or junior high is fine. It is the ones that are entering at the high school level, if proper channels are not taken these kids can easily fall under the radar. Many of these kids are leaving high school without knowing how to read," stressed Benoit.
This article is part of the NYCMA Ethnic and Community Press Fellowship – Developing an Education Beat, 2010.