Portraits of Passage

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Supporters say newcomers find themselves in a school where they don't have to fear being ridiculed for not speaking English.

A small school like Newcomers High, tailor-made for immigrant students, has a better shot at meeting their needs than regular schools, supporters say. And those needs can seem endless.

Hygiene is an issue. Gym class is not just talking about the rules of basketball but about showering with soap and using deodorant and a clean towel. Some students emigrated from places where soap is costly and the whole family uses one towel. Sheehan even keeps cheap knock-off designer colognes and deodorant in his office for opportune "teachable moments."

"We'll talk about it in social studies class--what we do to keep healthy and clean here," Sheehan says. "And that in American culture, people don't like certain smells. But it's low key."

Last year, during a bitter New York winter, some students showed up without winter jackets. Others came in traditional sandals. School staff members started up a kind of impromptu flea market with coats, sweat suits, and other cold-weather gear. "Kids just paid what they could, $1 or $2. Or we'd say, 'Hey, I've got these sweatshirts. Take them to anyone you think might need them,'" says Diana Cabot, who wears multiple hats as the school's physical education teacher, student activities coordinator, and peer mediator.

The school has set aside a quiet room so students, mostly Muslim, can fit in their multiple daily prayers without having to leave school for mosque. The cafeteria--besides serving up such standard institutional fare as chicken nuggets and tater tots--always has peanut butter and jelly on hand for students whose customs prohibit them from eating certain meats.

Some students arrive with gaps in their education, the result of political strife or rural schools.

Academically, a few Newcomers High students arrive with gaps in their education, their learning having been interrupted by political strife in their homelands or stunted by the limitations of rural schools. A handful are pre-literate: They have not yet mastered reading and writing in their native language, let alone English.

At the other end of the spectrum are classmates who arrive with an advantage. These students come from schools where classes were taught in English, even though they may have spoken their native language at home. Last year's test scores at Newcomers High show students performing at or above average in areas such as math and social studies compared with other Queens high school students.

Emotional concerns--on top of the typical teenage turbulence--also surface at school. Some students never wanted to leave their country. Others were sent on by parents to live with relatives they may have never known before.

Khondoker Haque, 17, came to New York from Bangladesh on June 24 to live with his uncle, who owns a deli and market in Astoria. Khondoker's father died suddenly in Bangladesh a few months after he arrived in New York, but his uncle didn't tell him about it until after he started school at Newcomers High, for fear he might become too upset to continue his studies.

Still other students have been reunited with their parents after years of separation, like Abraham Kwarteng from Ghana. As a young boy, Abraham's parents sent him to live with his aunt and uncle in Accra, the capital, to take advantage of the school system there. Two of his siblings lived with his mother in a more remote village. A third lived with grandparents in another community. His father had left for New York years before--so long ago that the 15-year-old doesn't remember when exactly. "When we arrived at JFK Airport, we couldn't even recognize him, but he recognized us," Abraham says of the father he is now getting to know.

A yellowed American flag hangs in the school's front office. Colored signs spell out the New York City board of education's nondiscrimination policy in six languages. Some students are referred to Newcomers High by overcrowded neighborhood schools when they go to register there. Others heard of the school through churches, grocery stores, community agencies, and foreign-language newspapers, which have reported extensively on it.

It often takes months for students to track down transcripts from their home countries, which then have to be translated into English.

"OTC," says registrar Yvonne Cabot, looking up from her desk as a woman and her son walk into the office. The number of OTCs--over-the-counter registrants--has slowed by late October but will likely pick up again after the winter holidays. The boy, wearing a NY Giants cap, has recently arrived from Brazil. He and his mother, who speaks some English, have brought his Brazilian passport, an electric bill, and immunization records. But when Cabot asks for a transcript, the mother's forehead wrinkles.

"Transcript? What is this?" she asks, and Cabot explains, partly in Spanish, partly in English. This transaction, it turns out, is fairly simple. But it often takes months for students to track down transcripts from their home countries, which then have to be translated into English to determine what credits the student can receive toward graduation. The school does not yet know, for example, whether Abraham Kwarteng from Ghana is a sophomore or junior because his transcript has not yet arrived.

Earlier in the day, a few Haitian students who spoke only Creole and French came to register with essentially no identification or information on past schooling. The school's French-speaking teachers were out, so Cabot had to pull a student from class to translate.

Last year's parent meetings included seminars on New York City laws, immigration and citizenship.

When a young woman swathed in a saffron-colored sari arrives to register, Cabot assumes the man escorting her is the woman's relative or legal guardian. He is, it turns out, the student's husband from Bangladesh and most likely, Cabot says, the product of an arranged marriage for the young woman.

On a rainy fall night, about a dozen parents show up for the school's first parent meeting of the year. As the moms and dads file in, shaking out their umbrellas, Margiotta works her way around the room passing out a parent handbook and offering doughnut holes decorated brown and orange for Halloween. The parents nibble tentatively.

Teacher and program coordinator Mary Burke explains the concept behind the PTA and why the school depends on parent involvement. Last year's parent meetings included seminars on New York City laws, educational opportunities for students and parents, and immigration and citizenship. The meetings are usually translated into a few main languages.

Vol. 16, Issue 13

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