EDUCATION NEWS FOR AN EDUCATED PUBLIC
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Statistics show there are currently more than 176,000 limited English proficient students enrolled in the New York City public schools. Approximately 90 percent of the most recent immigrants to New York City come from non-English-speaking countries and are fleeing situations of conflict and extreme poverty where access to formal schooling is sharply limited.
Although there are a few "newcomer schools" at the high school level which were created to meet the needs of new immigrants, there are none for junior high school or elementary school students. Administrators and teachers in public schools with large immigrant populations are struggling to prevent non-English-speaking students from falling through the academic cracks.
When Jose Mucuta, 14, came to America from the war-torn country of Angola last April, he spoke almost no English. Jose had less than four years of formal schooling at home and had literacy problems in his own language, Portuguese.
But, because of his date of birth, September 10, 1985, Jose was required by Board of Education policy to enroll in the 9th grade of his local Junior High School, 190, in Forest Hills, Queens.
"It's a big problem," says Kathleen Ponze, an assistant principal at the school and supervisor for the ESL department. "If I place a child by their birthday, I effectively make them miss years of schooling. It's very difficult to get a waiver on that policy from the district office."
Ms. Ponze and the faculty at Russell Sage, Junior High School 190, are trying to keep up with the demands of the large newcomer population in the school. Of the 1400 7th to 9th grade students who attend the school, approximately 60 percent don't speak English at home. Two hundred and fifty students are considered limited in English proficiency due to testing results and are required to take extra English classes in place of a foreign language. "I find over the last three years there is no theme here. The ESL children are coming from every corner of the globe. There are about fifty different languages spoken, so the children can't be grouped homogeneously and can't be taught in their own language," says Ms. Ponze.
For the last seven months Jose, a soft spoken boy, has been struggling in a class with thirty-two other newcomers from all over the world. They are taught the standard 9th grade New York State curriculum for English, math, social studies, and science. All the classes are taught in English.
"It was very hard for me when I first came here," says the teenager." I sit and listen to English all day, but I didn't understand nothing."
Because of the new standards movement, all newcomers, regardless of when they entered the country, will have to take several regents examinations in order to graduate from high school. This is a policy that many teachers, as well as administrators, feel will unfairly prevent ESL students from receiving a high-school diploma.
At Russell Sage, under the leadership of principal Stuart Mulnick, the program was reorganized to help limited English proficient students perform at grade level. They now receive ESL instruction twice a day in the seventh and eighth grade and three times a day in ninth grade. "Although schools were told to implement this state mandate, I know for a fact many schools haven't because of the way it would disrupt the rest of their program," says Ms. Ponze.
To further supplement instruction for new immigrants, Kathleen Ponze wrote and received a $50,000 grant, which enabled all four ESL teachers to work with the newcomers after school during the 1998-99 school year. This year a similar after school program exists, but the budget allows for only one teacher to work with the students.
"I think this program is very helpful," says Nancy Sklar, a young and energetic ESL teacher who stays with students until 5 p.m. twice a week. "It's individualized attention, but I don't even know why the schools should have to write grants like these anymore. The programs should be put into place automatically by the city and the state." Another unique aspect of the program at Russell Sage is that it is one of the few schools in the city with a uniform course of instruction for ESL students. "When I first started working here three years ago I found all the ESL teachers were sort of doing their own thing in terms of instruction," says Ms. Ponze. In order to align the curriculum to the New York State standards she ordered textbooks for each grade, designed to expose students to the material that they need in order to pass standardized tests. "I know we're in the forefront here because when I tell other administrators about the books they say, 'a curriculum for ESL, really?'" Results for this year's language assessment battery, which tests for English language proficiency, showed an average increase of seven percentage points for ninth graders at Russell Sage who received English instruction three times a day. The average increase for the same students from seventh to eighth grade was only two percentage points. Nonetheless, only eight out of forty four students did well enough to go into the mainstream classes. Jose Mucuta was not one of the students who passed.
"It's going to be an ongoing struggle to find resources for these kids," says Ponze. "There should be a clearinghouse in every borough. You just got off the boat, you speak no English and neither do your parents, there ought to be an immersion program. The schools don't have the facilities for the type of instruction that these students need. I feel bad for them, but what can we do?" With a lack of resources and funding in the schools the burden to keep up with the mainstream students is often left to the newcomers themselves. Michael Xu, a confident 15-year-old who arrived from China less than a year ago, already passed the language assessment battery and the entrance exam for Brooklyn Tech. "I read a lot of books in English and every time I don't know a word I write it down. Now I have hundreds of pages of new vocabulary words, I study every day. Maybe, in a few years, I can go to Harvard."
Hopefully, supplemental instruction for ESL students and higher standards will help other newcomers to not only keep up, but excel.
Kim Brown has been teaching ESL/Bilingual Russian in the NYC public schools for five years.
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