For Working Students, New York High School Opens Doors After Others Have Closed Theirs

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NEW YORK CITY--It Seems fitting that Manhattan Comprehensive Night High School occupies the same turn-of-the-century building where young immigrant girls once took their lessons.

For it is the pre-World War II schools that provided working immigrants with nighttime education that offer a precedent for the kind of program M.C.N.H.S. runs.

The school, apparently the nation's only academically accredited diploma-granting high school that runs from 5 to 10:45 P.M., has, since its opening in February 1989, offered American-born students and recent immigrants from all five boroughs of the city who work or care for their children an educational opportunity they would not otherwise have.

"We have to now make schools that fit students' lives, not the other way around," says Patricia Black, superintendent of Manhattan high schools.

On a recent evening, for example, a father and son appear unexpectedly in the office of the school's principal, Howard A. Friedman, a lanky man who limps a bit after running his 12th New York City Marathon the day before.

The father, a security guard at another high school, wants to ensure that his 19-year-old son, who has been working days as a construction worker, will be able to enroll soon in the night school to complete his high-school education.

Within a couple of minutes, the affable and unflappable Mr. Friedman has assured them that the son may begin classes the following week, and he steps into the outer office to smooth the bureaucratic way.

The young man--along with the Afghan immigrant who operates a coffee and doughnut pushcart beginning at 3 A.M., and the young mother who must care for her baby during the day--are all typical of the students who seek out the school, which costs the city no more to run than a regular school.

The 450 students, ages 17 to 22, are all at the school by choice, having turned to a program that can accommodate the lifestyles that must keep them out of school during the day.

Most students work either a full- or part-time job to support themselves and are emancipated minors or are otherwise living independently, according to the school.

"It's wonderful, in a way, that it's all in that tradition," says Mr. Friedman, referring to the earlier schools for immigrants.

"The kind of kids we have [whether U.S.or foreign-born], have the same needs as those European immigrants," he says.

At-Risk but Motivated

If a profile of students is any indication, those needs can be significant and various. Seventy-five percent of students are on some kind of public or private assistance, and about 40 percent have children or are pregnant, according to the school.

Some may also have had trouble with the law, including serving jail time, and others may be homeless or living in nontraditional situations, Mr. Friedman says.

Students hail from 19 different countries, including Hong Kong, Iraq, Mexico, Panama, and Zaire, and include recent immigrants as well as children of United Nations delegates.

About 45 percent of the students are Hispanic, and another 40 percent are black, Mr. Friedman says. The remaining 15 percent are Asian or non-Hispanic white.

"They meet every criterion for at-risk-dropout, minority, [English as a second language]--yet, they choose to come to school," Mr. Friedman says.

What draws them, he says, is the desire for an academic diploma, rather than one from one of the city's "alternative" high schools or a General Educational Development certificate.

'Where's so little legitimacy in their lives," he says, "they want it in their high school."

Liana Desouza certainly does. The 19-year-old from Brooklyn, who would like to go to college and become a pediatrician, saw her brother get a G.E.D., but does not think much of it.

"To me, it's not complete," she says of her brother's achievement.

"If you have a high-school diploma, [and] you apply for college, they know you accomplished something," says the mother of a 2-year-old son, adding: "I feel a sense of accomplishment."

But the school is not for everyone, Mr. Friedman says.

Successful candidates must have completed at least one year of high school and show at least 7th-grade reading skills, in order to demonstrate the ability and desire to complete an academic program.

Familiar Features

As different as the students may be from traditional ones, many aspects of the school day are familiar. Classes run Monday through Thursday nights to allow for day jobs, but students receive the same number of instructional minutes as those at a regular daytime high school, Mr. Friedman says.

Among the seven 45-minute periods, the school schedules two periods for a dinner that resembles a typical school lunch: pizza, mixed vegetables, cling peaches.

The students may also participate in extracurricular activities, such as dramatic productions, and intramural athletics, including basketball and volleyball. The school's schedule precludes interscholastic athletic competitions, Mr. Friedman says.

Sundays from noon to 6 P.M. are devoted to athletics and cultural-enrichment programs--such as museum visits, volunteerism, or video production--some of which allow them to bring their children.

'Nurturing' and 'Flexibility'

Despite such requirements, the school generally bends over backward to accommodate and support the lifestyles of its students. That includes being flexible about class schedules and homework, allowing independent study, offering job placement, and arranging for health care.

"We give them the nurturing of a private school and the flexibility of a junior college," says Stanley L. Gordon, the school's community coordinator.

While officials encourage continuity, the school calendar--four 10-week terms--is designed to recognize the adult responsibilities and unpredictability of the students' lives.

"It's our version of personal leave," says Ms. Black, the Manhattan superintendent.

As a result of such efforts, the school has become very attractive. At one point earlier this year, the school had 40 students waiting to start, Mr. Friedman says.

Indeed, its success has inspired similar, though smaller-scale, projects in other parts of New York, officials say.

'I Love This School'

Whether they ended up at the night school by thumbing through the Yellow Pages, being referred from another school, or through a boyfriend's military recruiter, students seem delighted they have found it. "I love this school," says Monica Richardson, 19, who says she left another high school because it was "too hectic."

Her new school is "easy" by comparison, she says. "It's fun."

"I work in the day. After work I come to this school," says Mohammad Gaman, 18, who came to the United States a year and a half ago after winning the "green-card lottery" in his native Bangladesh. "It is a good thing for me," he says. Teachers earned especially high marks. "They're great," says Cesar Cabrera, 21, a carpenter who wants to go to college and become a police officer after he graduates in January. "They talk to you. They care."

And Annette Martinez, 20, paid the faculty perhaps the highest possible compliment. "They're not really teachers," she says. "They're more like your friends."

If there is a drawback to life at the school, some students say, it is that the academics are not rigorous enough. One said he had been taking pre-calculus in a previous school, but here was only in Algebra I.

More than one student commented on the good behavior bred by motivated students in a school voluntarily.

Day-school students, Ms. Desouza says, "don't take school so seriously as people in this school."

At the high school, "no one's going to risk getting thrown out for a fight," she says.

It is perhaps not surprising, then, that such students harbor no small ambitions.

The majority of those interviewed say they planned to attend college, mostly at the City University of New York.

They also seek ambitious careers. One wants to be a lawyer, another a physician, still another a career military officer.

And then there is 18-year-old William Santiago a student at Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., and currently at work on a novel about time travel--who says he will forgo college in order to launch his career as a writer, director, and producer.

But most of the other students simply feel that an education, including an academic diploma from Manhattan Comprehensive Night High School, will ensure them a better life.

"I need a good job for my baby and for my future," says 20-year-old Theresa Martinez.

Vol. 11, Issue 11, Pages 6-7

Published in Print: November 13, 1991, as For Working Students, New York High School Opens Doors After Others Have Closed Theirs
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