Gotham Gazette

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Small Schools Exclude Many Immigrants

In recent years, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein have undertaken a wide range of school reform efforts, the cornerstone of which has been the dismantling of large, failing high schools and the creation of nearly 200 new small high schools to replace them. Designed to offer a more rigorous and engaging curriculum, these schools are yielding improved outcomes for all students, according to preliminary data. But there is one group of students for whom small schools are not as beneficial as they could be – immigrants and students who are English-language learners (referred to as ELLs). That is because many small schools do not accept them.

It is the policy of the New York City Department of Education to allow a small school to exclude English-language learners (and special education students) during its first two years of operation. This is permitted, according to the department, so that the schools can build up the necessary infrastructure to provide the instructional services these students require.

But, as it turns out, many of the older small schools still do not offer programs for these students, according to a new report issued by The New York Immigration Coalition (the organization for which we work), Advocates for Children, and seven immigrant community-based organizations.

Of the 53 schools surveyed that pre-dated the launch of Mayor Bloomberg’s small schools initiative in 2003, 21 offered no programs at all for English-language learners, even though they are legally mandated.

Overall, more than half of the 183 small high schools we looked at in the report had no such students at all or less than five percent in their student body; English-language learners make up more than 11 percent of overall high school student population in New York City.

Less Than Full Access

The Department of Education maintains that English-language learners are adequately represented in small schools, and opportunities have increased each year. There are eight new high schools specifically focused on such students. There are incentive grants to schools to improve enrollment of these students and provide services to them. The result of these efforts is that such students constitute more than ten percent of students in small schools, or just about one percent below their percentage in all public high schools in the city.

But the statistic can be misleading. Most of the students are concentrated in a few small high schools or relegated to large schools that might not be prepared to serve them. While most schools that were created to help these students, such as the International High Schools, are highly regarded, critics say they are not a substitute for full access to all small schools, many of which feature unique career-oriented and specialized programs.

The lack of full access to small high schools is troubling, say critics, both because of the equity issues involved and because this particular student population faces the greatest risk of educational failure. More than half of English-language learners drop out of high school over the course of seven years, compared with less than a third of the general high school population.

Yet, many such students who are at failing schools that are being phased out simply wind up at other large schools. For example, Theodore Roosevelt High School in the Bronx, which is being phased out, saw an 87 percent decrease of its English-language learners over four years. In those same four years, two neighboring large schools saw increases of 27 percent and 48 percent.

Geography and Outreach

The borough of Queens has the fastest-growing immigrant student population, and not surprisingly, the highest number of high school students learning English – nearly 11,000, or almost of a third of all such students throughout the city. Yet, in 2005, only seven percent of new small schools were located in Queens.

The fact that large sections of Queens are not served by public transportation, coupled with the fact that school choice is often driven by proximity to a child’s home, underscore the need to create more small schools in Queens.

Our study also identified barriers in the high school admissions and enrollment process that exacerbated the already unequal access to small schools. Only 25 percent of parents who responded to our survey reported receiving information about high school fairs from the Department of Education, even though these fairs are the centerpiece of the department’s efforts to inform and move tens of thousands of students through the high school selection process. Sixty percent of parents who responded to our survey reported not receiving any information about ELL programs when attempting to find appropriate high school placements for their children.

The report findings were based on data from the New York City Department of Education and the State Education Department, surveys of 1,155 parents and students from 72 schools, 12 focus groups with 109 participants, and interviews with senior staff in 126 small schools.

Deycy Avitia is education policy associate, and Norman Eng is communications coordinator, with The New York Immigration Coalition.

See the rest of this month's The Citizen. 

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