Verdict still out

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Murky territory awaits those who ask the questions: Are newcomer programs legal? And are they effective? The answer to both appears to be: It depends.

Civil rights advocates like Margie McHugh of the New York Immigration Coalition are torn. In the context of backlash against immigrants and severely overcrowded city schools where newcomer students are easily lost in the shuffle, schools like Newcomers High look like a good alternative.

But by design, such schools only serve a tiny slice of the immigrant student population in a city like New York. So what happens at Newcomers High does not immediately affect the larger school system where the majority of immigrant students are educated. "We prefer systemic solutions," McHugh explains, "not individual ones."

Though McHugh's coalition supports the Long Island City Newcomers High, other immigrant advocates criticize newcomer programs for unnecessarily isolating newly arrived students who speak little or no English. Some even fear that separate will mean separate and unequal. "That's the lesson from school desegregation," says Joan First, the executive co-director of the National Coalition of Advocates for Students in Boston. "These kids can be troublesome to serve, so the idea is move them into a specialized setting where they don't create problems for the rest of the system, and parents are sold that this is the answer."

For its part, the U.S. Department of Education's office for civil rights has looked into newcomer schools to see whether they violate Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bars discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin.

A New York City civil rights group last year filed a complaint against Newcomers High, but the OCR found no Title VI violation and dismissed the complaint. The agency's reasoning mirrored that of a 1991 general review of the Sacramento, Calif., school system, which runs a K-6 newcomer school. Its documents reveal that the OCR did have "serious reservations" about the California newcomer school being a wholly separate site. Still, the agency ruled that neither the Sacramento nor the New York City school violated civil rights law because: Enrollment is voluntary and attendance time is limited, the schools are racially and linguistically mixed, and they offer academic and extracurricular activities comparable to other schools in their districts.

The OCR may have more to say on the subject when it finishes its general review of the Fort Worth, Texas, school district, which also runs a newcomer school.

What's clear is that there are no hard and fast rules on whether a newcomer school will pass legal muster. "The issue really is resolved on a case-by-case basis," says Angela Martinez, a senior attorney in the OCR's Denver office. "In general, we need to determine what degree of segregation is necessary to achieve educational goals."

As to whether newcomer schools are effective, the evidence to date is largely anecdotal.

Lorraine McDonnell, a political science professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara who has written about newcomer schools, says she has found no data comparing immigrant students who went through a newcomer school with those who went straight into regular schools. Nor has there been systematic tracking of students from newcomer schools. "When reformers talked about what good schools should be like, these were those schools," McDonnell says. "They're very happy places. They have an intentional and focused curriculum. Somebody really sat down to think about what these kids need."

But do the students do better in the mainstream as a result? "It's the big question mark," McDonnell says.

To hear newcomer school alumni--and administrators at the regular schools they moved into--tell it, the concept works. Ali Tariq spent a year at New York's Newcomers High before starting at nearby William Cullen Bryant High School in September. Though the 15-year-old says he would have survived had he started at Bryant, he misses the friendliness and small size of Newcomers.

Kent Mo attended San Francisco's Newcomer High School--established in 1979 and considered the nation's oldest--in 1984. He came from China with his parents and two brothers. Now, the 28-year-old runs a photography studio in Oakland. "Newcomer helped me a lot," he says. "They made it not so scary to study in the United States. So once I went to the other high school, I'm not so scared. They taught us not just things from the book, but from real life in America."

For June Yip Tang, now a mother of two who works as a supervisor at a San Francisco bank, her time at Newcomer in 1979 meant sharing a common bond with other immigrant students. She still keeps up with friends from that year. "I had bilingual teachers at my other high school, but not like at Newcomer," she says. "I felt like they really understood me and knew where I had been."

That comfort level, says Lupe Arabolos, translates into an ability to succeed in the mainstream. Arabolos taught at San Francisco's Newcomer High in the school's early years and later spent more than a decade as the assistant principal and then principal of Mission High School, which receives many Newcomer High students and has a large immigrant population of its own. She left her post in June to supervise secondary school bilingual-education programs for the San Francisco school system.

"I noticed a greater sense of ease among those students who came from Newcomer. They seemed more comfortable in the school setting and got involved in school activities more quickly," Arabolos says. "At a regular four-year high school, you just don't have the time to do all the things they do at Newcomer. It's not impossible, but you'd have to change your perspective. But at Newcomer, you've already changed the perspective.''


Vol. 16, Issue 13

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