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Published in Print: September 22, 2004, as Working Immigrants Get New School Options

Working Immigrants Get New School Options

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An increasing number of school districts are adding programs in the evening and on weekends to accommodate immigrant students who hold jobs.

With the help of a wealthy businessman, two districts in Colorado opened schools this month for immigrants ages 16 to 20 who have limited proficiency in English. The schools provide classes during evenings and on Saturdays.

Their benefactor, Jared S. Polis, who is also the chairman of the Colorado state board of education, hopes to provide the start-up money, through his foundation, the Jared Polis Foundation, for a dozen schools for older immigrant students in the state within the next decade.

Also this month, the Houston school board in Texas voted unanimously to start a charter school by January for immigrants age 17 or older that will provide classes at nontraditional hours.

"If you are dealing with older immigrant students, inevitably you are dealing with students who have adult responsibilities," said Howard A. Friedman, the principal and founder of the Manhattan Comprehensive Night and Day High School, a public school in New York City started in 1989 that has always provided flexible scheduling. "The first thing is survival. If you have a school that closes at 6 p.m., you're going to rule out many students who work."

About 65 percent of the 800 students enrolled at the Manhattan Night and Day School are immigrants. The school has inspired the creation of other programs with flexible hours, including the two new schools in Colorado.

Growing Need

But educators who run such programs say that flexible hours are far from the norm nationwide, though interest in meeting the needs of immigrant youths who work full time and are unlikely to attend regular high schools is growing.

Many communities have a large number of youths who fall into that category.

A 2003 study by Richard Fry of the Pew Hispanic Center in Washington estimated that one-third of the nation's more than half-million 16- to 19-year-old Latinos who are high school dropouts have had little or no contact with U.S. schools. That study recommended that such students be served by adult education or workplace programs.

Districts that aim to serve such youths say the students should still have a chance to get a regular high school diploma rather than a General Educational Development certificate, which is what many adult education programs offer. Most public adult education programs also charge tuition.

Students enrolled in the new immigrant schools in Colorado, the charter school planned for Houston, and the Manhattan Night and Day school can earn regular high school diplomas.

Though laws vary, youths in many states are entitled to a free public high school education until they are 21. But, while public schools must admit older immigrant students, many never register. And if they do, some drop out after having to attend class with much younger students.

Shelley P. Gutstein, the prin cipal of four transitional high schools for English-language learners in Virginia's 166,000-student Fairfax County schools, said she believes many districts lack the funding to seek out immigrant youths who work or to provide programs with flexible scheduling.

Disincentive?

Mr. Friedman, the Manhattan principal, also contends that the federal No Child Left Behind Act provides a disincentive for districts to start separate schools with a concentration of students deemed at risk of academic failure, such as immigrants who arrive in the United States as teenagers.

Last week, Mr. Friedman learned that his school was on a list of schools not making adequate yearly progress under that law. He views his school's presence on the list as "an insult."

The benchmarks New York state has set under the federal law should be realistic for immigrant students who don't arrive in U.S. schools at an early age and who may take longer than younger English-language learners to catch up academically with their peers, he said.

If the No Child Left Behind Act isn't altered, and his school continues to fail to make what is deemed adequate progress, Mr. Friedman said, "we're going to triage the population in such a way that some very worthy students don't go to this school."

Between half and two-thirds of the students who have enrolled in the two new immigrant schools in Colorado, which provide classes on Saturdays and from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. weekdays, have never set foot in regular U.S. schools, estimates Marla J. Jacobson, the principal of the two schools.

Both schools are called the New America School and are managed by a nonprofit organization of the same name. One school, in Denver, is operating under a contract with the 72,000-student Denver school system. The other school is a charter school located in Thornton and operating under the 6,500-student Adams County 14 school district, which is in Commerce City, Colo.

The two schools have enrolled more than 600 students this fall, though many of them attend part time. Ms. Jacobson said the night classes attract more students than the day classes. A majority of the students are Spanish-speaking and work in the service or construction industries. Many are young mothers.

'It's An Investment'

By 2000, 105 high schools nationwide had created "newcomer centers" to help immigrant students with their basic English skills, according to the Washington-based Center for Applied Linguistics. Fewer than 10 of those, however, provided flexible hours, according to the center.

In addition, the Fairfax County school district runs four transitional high school for students with limited proficiency in English. A majority of the 400 students in those schools are ages 18 to 25 and attend classes from 6:30 p.m. to 9:45 p.m., according to Ms. Gutstein.

"It's an investment in the community, in all of our futures," said Ms. Gutstein. "It's an investment in the children of our students, should they have them, as well, to help those students be more successful in school because their parents have a higher level of education."

PHOTO: The Manhattan Comprehensive Night and Day High School in New York City gives older immigrant and working students from 17 to 21 years old the chance to earn a diploma while allowing the flexibility in schedules that some of the students require. Left, students snack in the school's cafeteria.
—File photo by Vincent Laforet/The New York Times

Vol. 24, Issue 04, Page 5

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