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Rights Group Challenges Newcomer School

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A New York city high school that serves recent immigrants to the United States violates federal law, a civil-rights advocacy group argues in a complaint filed with the U.S. Department of Education.

The complaint claims that the Newcomer School: Academy for New Americans, located in Queens, illegally segregates students on the basis of national origin and offers a "separate and unequal" education.

The school is one of a growing number of similar programs around the country designed to help immigrant children ease quickly into the culture and society of the United States.

The complaint illustrates one of the controversies surrounding such programs: whether they violate the civil rights of the very students they seek to serve.

The complaint by the New York Civil Rights Coalition contends that the Newcomer School violates Title VI of the Civil Rights ACT of 1964, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin. The complaint maintains that the school will delay or prevent students from being integrated into the community at large--exactly the opposite of what the school's supporters say it is supposed to do.

Michael Meyers, the coalition's executive director, said last week that the school is described as both transitional and as a four-year high school from which students can graduate. That, he said, shows an intent by the school district to keep immigrant students separate.

"As usual," he said, "the board of education is talking out of both sides of their mouth."

A board spokesman said school officials expect the complaint to be rejected. Mr. Meyers in the past has filed similar federal complaints against a city school that serves predominantly black children and one that focuses on Hispanic students. The first complaint was rejected after an Education Department investigation; the second is still pending. (See Education Week, Oct. 27, 1993.)

Because of last week's shutdown of federal agencies, an Education Department spokeswoman said no one from the department's office for civil rights was available for comment.

'We Can Offer Comfort'

The Newcomer School, which opened in September, seeks to help students move into regular public high schools, board spokesman Josh Plaut said. Students enroll there on a voluntary basis, and most are expected to stay only a year, he added.

As of last week, the school had 360 students from 40 countries who speak more than 20 languages, said Assistant Principal Ron Gerstman.

The school offers the same curriculum as that of other city high schools and provides it with the help of 27 teachers who speak a total of at least 18 languages, Mr. Gerstman said.

Administrators eventually hope to work with community organizations to offer job counseling, health-care services, and citizenship information for parents and students.

Mr. Gerstman disagreed with Mr. Meyers' claim that Newcomer students do not receive a level of service that justifies their segregation from other children. The school offers more intensive English-as-a-second-language instruction than is available at most high schools, Mr. Gerstman said, and it also gives students something more intangible.

"We can offer a comfort," he said. "All our kids are in the same boat."

Some immigrant advocates cautiously support the new school.

But, said Margie McHugh, the executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition, a local advocacy group, it must be monitored closely. "We don't want this to turn into a kind of dumping ground."

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