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An Interview with Brooke Hauser, author of New Kids: Part 2

By Jaclyn Zubrzycki — October 24, 2011 8 min read
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We continue our interview with Brooke Hauser, whose new book The New Kids describes a year at the International High School in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn.

Education Week: Teachers at the International High School get very involved in students’ lives—a teacher goes to Yasmeen’s engagement celebration, and, in one case, a teacher takes a student into her home. Do you think this happens at International more than at the average school?

Brooke Hauser: I think it’s more than at the average school. The International High Schools have a program in place called advisory, where a teacher or another staff member is an advisor to a certain number of students. They look after each student’s welfare—not just academically but emotionally. If a student is in danger of failing a class, the adviser will step in and talk with other teachers and see how can we help this student. It seems that advisers take on the role of in-school parents or guardian angels.

When one student was kicked out of her house, her adviser called the homeless shelter to find a place for her to sleep. James Rice, Yasmeen’s adviser, was really there for her when her parents died and when she was trying to make this decision about whether to get married. Advisers helped kids find jobs, helped kids apply for papers for visas, helped them deal with problems at home, work, engagement, death, babies. Really, it seems like a 24/7 job.

The other students in the advisory also help each other. When one girl had an engagement party, many girls from advisory showed up to show support. It’s a support group, and it’s especially important to have an advisory group at a school for new immigrants. Learning the language is just a small fraction of what they have to do when they first get here. They’re learning a new country— in the case of New York, how to navigate one of the biggest cities in the world. Learning the language is important, but in order to focus on studies, a lot has to be figured out outside of school as well.

As far as the turnover of teachers, teachers are extremely committed to students and to the school. Since I’ve been there, teachers have come and gone. But that happens in New York City. It’s not that they burned out, but some moved out of New York. Other teachers moved to other schools. But many teachers keep in touch with students.

EW: Can you talk a bit about the role of the school’s principal?

BH: Alexandra Anormaliza [principal at the time of the book, now at the New York City Department of Education] had a huge role in the school. She really set the tone for the school. She talks about how she wanted to change the idea of what a school for immigrants would look like. She wanted it to be a beautiful place— painted walls a warm peach. She wanted it to be happy, inspiring place. Her idea fits with the larger motto for International Schools—it’s opening doors to the American dream. ...

She was also really interesting to me because she’s from Ecuador originally, and when she came here as a little girl, she was undocumented. She’s since become documented, obviously, but what an incredible example for a principal to set for her students! She herself is an immigrant, came here at a young age and had to learn English, was undocumented and had to work through challenges, work for opportunity to come. She was beloved as a principal. The school’s sorry to have lost her and misses her. She’s gone on to this very powerful position within DOE and the students continue to look up to her and admire her. She’s been replaced by Nedda DeCastro, her former assistant principal. She has a social work background, very different way of running the school, but also brings tremendous skill and experience to the role.

At these schools, principals have a lot of power. The culture of each school depends a lot on the principal and the teachers.

EW: You say in the book that the students’ struggles don’t necessarily end upon arriving at college. How are the students doing now?

BH: I keep in touch with a bunch of them. I gave the commencement speech at graduation in 2011, which was really cool. I’m in touch with Jessica at Drexel, Freeman and Mukta at UV[University of Vermont]. Those kids are all doing very well in college. I’m sure they have to work extremely hard. It’s always going to be a challenge for a student who has come here to America only a few years ago. They’re in classes now with kids who grew up here, speaking English. They’re doing well and working very hard. Especially at smaller colleges or larger universities with support structures. Hopefully they’re getting the help they need.

Five of the students from the year I reported won the Seinfeld scholarship [which covers full tuition for New York City students]. It was a huge victory for the school. Many other kids are at community colleges or state universities. A high number at Prospect Heights do wind up going onto college. The population that has the most trouble is undocumented students. The year I was there, 15% of the class was undocumented. Until we pass the DREAM Act, these kids are going to have a hard time. They worked just as hard as their classmates through high school, but on graduation day they’re stranded.

It’s difficult and rare to get a private scholarship to college. The majority are poor and can’t afford to pay for college on their own. Many graduate to become nannies, maids, kitchen delivery boys. In the book I say that while some get waitlisted for college, the undocumented students are waitlisted for life. It’s frustrating to see.

The kids are definitely aware of the DREAM Act. I was there the year it didn’t end up passing. It was a disheartening, sad day at International High School. Teachers get kids involved in certain political issues, especially those that affect immigrants and English language learners. ...

One thing that has really stayed with me all of this time is - there used to be these immigration lawyers who visited the school, and they tell the kids, from the Elie Wiesel quote, “No human being is illegal. If you’re speaking about yourself and your legal status, don’t say you’re illegal—say you’re undocumented.” But kids still went on calling themselves illegal. ... [I] think that’s a term students have read or heard on TV. It weighs on them. It’s an unfortunate choice of language.

EW: What is language instruction like at the school?

BH: No bilingual education takes place at the school. Kids are instructed in English. In class, they sometimes work in groups of 3 or 4 or 5. They’re encouraged to speak in English, but can use their native language when necessary.

Say there’s a group of 4-5 kids—one from Haiti, one from Senegal, one from China, one from Poland. Say one needs help. The kid from Haiti is going to speak Creole, the kid from Senegal might speak a little French—they might be able to communicate together in French, so the student from Senegal might be able to explain a little to the student from Haiti.

The executive director compares the International High School’s model to learning how to ride a bike. You don’t learn to ride a bicycle by walking, you learn by riding a bicycle. Kids are really thrown into English, but they have training wheels—classmates who are able to help them out by explaining something, teachers who speak other languages.

If kids are pulled out for anything, it’s students with interrupted formal education (SIFE). They might get some help outside normal classes.

In a single class, you’re going to have a student who comes from a privileged background and went to Chinese boarding school and another student who never held a pencil until 9th grade. There are kids at all different academic levels in each class.

EW: Does it seem like being at a school with other students who have immigrated helps the kids?

BH: It’s hard to generalize. This is a very nurturing environment. Students feel safe in this school. Even though they come from all these different backgrounds, they’re on the same boat because they’re all learning English, and they’re all new to country. There are some kids who did have experiences at middle schools before coming to International who complained about being teased and taunted by American-born students - for instance, a Yemeni girl who at previous middle school was called the Taliban. She actually dropped out of school because kids would taunt her about her headscarf. I don’t think that always happens, but when you’re new to the country and you don’t speak English, but every other person in your class does - that’s a hard position to be in. The school helps kids acculturate into American society in that when they’re at their most vulnerable, they’re surrounded by friends and other students who are also learning the language and also feeling a bit vulnerable.

There are other programs that are different that work as well. I went to public school in Miami, and from what I remember, kids who were learning English were separate anyway...

There were definitely fights, it’s teenage nature. There was political tension between Tibetan and Chinese students... But I think the kids are a little kinder to each other when it comes to taunting about accents or funny clothes or emblems of being new.

EW: You gave the commencement address at the school last year. Can you tell me a bit about that?

BH: I was so excited and so nervous, but it went well. ... I worked at the Tenement Museum in college. It’s about immigration and how the first immigrants in [the] U.S. lived in this neighborhood of the Lower East Side, how the neighborhood has changed over decades. It made me think. Every family has one great immigration story if you dig back far enough. In my family, my grandfather is Romanian. He was born in New York, but was orphaned as a baby and never got to know [his] parents. But his mother wrote these long letters that have since been translated. Through her letters, we’ve been able to rebuild some of that family history.

It occurred to me when I was speaking in front of these students: I was raised with an awareness of the sacrifices that my great grandparents made in order to start a new life in America, and these students are doing that. Their children and grandchildren and great grandchildren will know their stories and sacrifices the same way I have learned about my ancestors. It’s a big deal coming to this country from another place. It takes a lot of work and effort in the beginning, but people do it so they can create a better life for the next generation and the next. These students are doing something important just by being here.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.