Portraits of Passage

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Newcomer schools can help immigrant students make the transition from the countries they once called home to their new one.

Long Island City, N.Y.

In a sparse school library, teacher Debra Gerstman competes with the sound of bulldozers cracking slabs of concrete to expand a nearby subway line. Seven students--from China, Ecuador, Bulgaria, Pakistan, and Romania--sit around an L-shaped table, snatching shy glances at each other. Two have been in the United States for eight months--the longest of any in the group--others less than a week.

"We are all in New York City. You are here now," Gerstman says, pointing to a map of the United States. The group is here for new-student orientation, which on this October day includes a look at New York as a city of immigrants. The day's icebreakers are listed on the chalkboard behind her: immigrants, ethnic groups, main food, and main religion. Gerstman makes her way around the room, asking each student to take a stab at describing the customs of his or her homeland.

The exercise gets a little complicated when one young man tries to answer Gerstman's question about the principal foods eaten in his home country of Pakistan. He responds with two words: pita bread. But when Gerstman presses him to explain his answer to the rest of the group, he simply shrugs his shoulders. The task then falls to Gerstman.

"Hmm, let's see. How do you describe pita bread? Um, like a pocket," Gerstman says, pantomiming opening and closing the bread with its imaginary filling.

When she asks the Bulgarian student about his country's food, he just squirms in his seat, eyes fixed on the ceiling as he burrows into an oversized windbreaker. "OK. OK. I know it's hard to express it in English for now," Gerstman says smiling, turning back to the chalkboard. "You'll learn."

The task is as simple as teaching students survival English, and as complex as helping families rebuild after years of separation.

This is Newcomers High School: Academy for New Americans, a public high school exclusively for recently arrived immigrants. Its mission is not only to teach the teenagers key academic subjects and English skills but to smooth the transition into American schools and society for students and their families. That task is as simple as teaching students survival English--how to call 911, how to ride the subway to school, or how to use a pay phone--and as complex as helping families rebuild after years of separation.

New York officials opened Newcomers High in the borough of Queens last fall, in the thick of anti-immigrant sentiment seeping through many parts of the country. But the city's ethnic soup has fostered a more pro-immigrant stance. In fact, city school officials have already expanded the newcomer concept. They opened a newcomer middle school in September right across the street from the high school. And there may be more to come in other areas of the city.

Newcomers High was born of necessity, at least in part to provide relief to some of the city's most overcrowded high schools in Queens. Since many of the new students streaming into the borough's high schools are newly arrived immigrants, Newcomers High was the right answer at the right time, says Queens High Schools Superintendent Margaret Harrington. As a matter of policy, enrollment at Newcomers High will never top 1,000 students; neighboring schools house three or four times that number.

Any Queens student who has lived in the United States for less than a year, has limited English skills, and has never attended an American high school is eligible to enroll at Newcomers High. Parents and students are also free to choose from the borough's 31 other high schools. Students who enter Newcomers High in 9th or 10th grade can stay for a year but then must move on to a regular high school. Students who start in 11th or 12th grades may graduate from Newcomers High, which offers a full range of academic courses--from chemistry and social studies to English and algebra. The academic program at Newcomers High is intended to put students on track to graduate with the state's more rigorous diploma--which in New York state's dual system means one certified by the board of regents.

Queens is one of the most ethnically diverse counties in the nation. Some 36 percent of its residents are foreign born--the third-highest percentage among all U.S. counties. The No. 7 train, which rumbles past the high school on its path across northwest Queens, is dubbed the International Express. The Korean Philippo Presbyterian Church, St. Patrick's Catholic Church, and the Luso-Brazilian Seventh-day Adventist Church all stand within a two-block radius of the school. The red neon sign of the Swingline staple factory, a testimony to the neighborhood's industrial roots, is visible from the school's upper floors.

Newcomer school growth nationally has been decidedly ad hoc and poorly tracked. New York's Newcomers High is one of the most recent additions to an existing collection of such schools around the country--from San Francisco to Fort Worth, Texas. A 1990 report counted at least 17 school districts in California with newcomerprograms. And newcomer schools have been discussed in recent years in such places as Seattle and Providence, R.I.

Some civil rights advocates charge that the schools unnecessarily segregate and stigmatize immigrant children and run the risk of becoming dumping grounds.

Some newcomer programs are centers within an existing school; others are separate schools of their own. Some serve elementary school children, others only teens. Some keep students for a few weeks, others for a semester or a year. A standard definition for newcomer schools does not exist. Generally, the schools try to meet the psychological and social needs of immigrant students and their families in addition to teaching students English and basic academic subjects.

But the schools are not without their critics. Civil rights advocates charge that the schools unnecessarily segregate and stigmatize immigrant children and run the risk of becoming dumping grounds. Such schools, critics say, also absolve the larger school system of responsibility for educating immigrant children. (See "Verdict Still Out," in This Week's News.)

What little research does exist on newcomer programs notes that even more established schools like San Francisco's Newcomer High--which dates back to 1979--have not tracked how students fare after they enter the mainstream for which the newcomer school has theoretically prepared them.

But at the very least, supporters of such programs say, newcomer students find themselves in a school with teachers who want to teach them. Where students don't have to fear being ridiculed for not speaking English. Where no one has a leg up because everyone is new. And where immigrant students are not marginalized in the life of school because the newcomer school exists solely to serve them.

"All teachers supposedly care about these kids," says Newcomers High teacher Daniel Sheehan. "But these kids are our only kids."

Vol. 16, Issue 13

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