Portraits of Passage

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Any Queens student who has lived in the United States less than a year, has limited English skills, and has never attended an American high school is eligible to enroll at Newcomers High.

Early morning outside the red-brick turn-of-the-century school brings yeasty smells from the muffin and bakery shop it faces. The school's decidedly typical exterior belies what happens inside. The pace at Newcomers High is fast and frenzied.

The roughly 630 students streaming through the school's doors hail from more than 40 countries and speak 28 languages, making for a cacophony of sounds that bounce off the building's bright blue walls. outside the second-floor library. A Bengali girl rushing through the side door sports a blue satin Yankees jacket over a delicately embroidered sea-green sari, a literal layering of cultures.

After the bell rings to mark the start of school, the halls are desolate. No hanging out. No graffiti on the walls. No papers or gum wrappers on the floors. Spotless tile bathrooms.

Security guards at the front entrance seem to have little to do other than chase down the occasional parent who enters for the first time without stopping to sign the visitor logbook. Discipline problems are virtually nonexistent. The two most notable incidents to date have stemmed from culture clashes. Last year, a Spanish-speaking student called a Korean classmate a "chino"--a term many Spanish speakers use generically to refer to people with Asian features. The Korean student took offense and punched the other student. The other conflict arose when a student from Bangladesh pulled a razor blade from his pocket to sharpen a pencil in class--a routine act in his home country but against school weapon rules in New York City. He was suspended for a few weeks, then let back into class.

Though not by design, many of the high school's teachers and staff members have worked abroad or are themselves immigrants

Though not by design, many of the high school's teachers and staff members have worked abroad or are themselves immigrants. They speak a combination of almost 30 languages. Take Principal Lourdes Burrows, who moved from Cuba at age 13 to Miami. Or Russian science teacher Svetlana Livdan, who arrived from Ukraine in 1991. Math teacher Miguel Pineda came to New York alone from El Salvador at age 15 as many years ago. Sheehan, a social studies teacher and Bronx native, has worked in Romania for the U.S. State Department. And the school boasts a contingency of Peace Corps alumni, too.

Svetlana Livdan's chemistry class settles in behind long wooden tables coated with thick brown paint. The class is taught in English, but with so many languages spoken among the staff--one teacher alone speaks Romanian, German, Bengali, Russian, Spanish, and some French--students can almost always find help with translation. Glossaries of common terms are also available to students in a number of languages so they can translate for themselves, too.

Not all courses are taught in English. The school offers core subjects--such as social studies and science--in the most prevalent languages: Spanish, Chinese, and Bengali. Should large numbers of new ethnic groups show up here, the bilingual classes would change to keep pace.

Although Livdan is a science teacher by training, she and other teachers at Newcomers High use English-as-a-second-language methods to teach classes where students routinely speak up to a dozen languages. Livdan stops a video frequently to repeat concepts for students. When she assigns homework, she urges students to readthe chemistry passages a few times, dictionary or glossary in hand.

As the students take turns reading aloud from their chemistry book, Livdan gently helps Justyna Kaczmarczyk pronounce "natural radioactivity" when she stumbles over it, visibly frustrated. Livdan then asks Justyna to describe the work of scientist Marie Curie, who, like Justyna, was born in Poland. The 16-year-old's face brightens as she describes Curie's discovery of radium and her subsequent Nobel Prizes.

When Justyna is not at computer class, playing basketball, or doing homework, she's helping her mother organize their new apartment.

Justyna and her mother arrived in New York in May, leaving her younger brother and sister, her grandmother, and her basketball team behind in Cracow. Her father had left for New York six years earlier. Neither she nor her mother had seen him since the day he left, other than on the videotapes or photos he would send from time to time.

Although Justyna studied English in school in Cracow, she was so nervous about starting high school here that she took a private English class over the summer. Tucked in her backpack, she keeps a small plastic album with photos of the friends she's made at a computer class she takes in Brooklyn twice a week.

When Justyna is not at computer class, playing basketball, or doing homework, she's helping her mother organize their new apartment and the room set aside for her younger siblings, who are awaiting visas. "It is very hard for me because I miss so much my brother and sister," Justyna says. "But I wanted to be with my parents, too. And I like this school. Everyone knows me. Everyone is same."

In room 102, Angie Margiotta is practicing what she calls the Marcel Marceau method of teaching English in her ESL 1 class--the school's most basic level. Pantomime becomes key. English labels cover most everything in the room: door, speaker, blackboard, closet, light switch.

As Margiotta hands back homework, Polina Ikaeva from Russia leans over to Deyvi Urena from the Dominican Republic. She shows him the check mark on her paper.

"Is good?" she asks. "Yes, look," Deyvi says, as he flips his sheet over and writes an X. "This, bad."

"Oh. Yes," she says, uncrossing her feet to reveal spotless white Fila tennis shoes.

On the other side of the room, a new student tries out his electronic translator, which many of his Chinese peers use in class. Punch in a word in English and it spits it out in Mandarin or Cantonese. Even slang. Hit "D" and you get: double cross, drop dead, dogeared, dead on arrival.

"You just hope it gets through. It's hard to tell sometimes. You just repeat and repeat."

Jordan Sandke

Down the hall, ESL teacher Heather Parris-Fitzpatrick teaches an elective class called "Accent Reduction." It's one of about two dozen rotating minicourses students take every Wednesday. Her students hold a piece of paper in front of their mouths--sending it fluttering when they emit the "p" sound but keeping it still with "b." In a scene vaguely reminiscent of "My Fair Lady," Parris-Fitzpatrick leads the class in a voice thick with her native Queens accent: "It was by far the best ballgame of the season."

Teacher Jordan Sandke spends most of the time in his music class re-explaining what an outline is. Today, his students were supposed to turn in outlines for a report on musical styles from their home countries and the various functions music serves there. As he walks around the room collecting papers, he pauses to look at Gustavo Pressanto's work. "Good outline. Oh, it's in Portuguese," he says, eyes squinting behind his glasses. "OK."

As his students file out of the room dotted with posters of Beethoven, the Beatles, and Tejano music star Selena, Sandke shakes his head with a smile. "You just hope it gets through. It's hard to tell sometimes. You just repeat and repeat," he says. "And you hope they open up enough to tell you they don't get it."

Vol. 16, Issue 13

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