Helping Immigrant Teens Stay in School
February 10, 2006
Gotham Gazette

By Louise Radnofsky
Community Gazette for District 10

When Sarai Paredes arrived in New York from the Dominican Republic with her mother, she visited one of New York City's large high schools - and found it terrifying. She worried about being lost and looking out of place, and feeling out of place. So instead Paredes enrolled in a small school, Gregorio Luperon High School in Washington Heights. It seems to have been the correct decision. Paredes now edits the school newspaper and has her eye on the future.

Another student, Jimenez Julio from Honduras, explains how difficult things can be for a new immigrant. In his contribution to the school paper, written in English, he confides, "I am living in the biggest city in the world, and I feel like an ant trying to survive."

Certainly, the odds in the public school system are overwhelmingly stacked against Latino immigrants who arrive not speaking English. A
recent study by the National Center for Education Statistics of Hispanic students born outside the U.S. found that 44.2 percent dropped out of high school without graduating. New York City does not provide a racial breakdown of its dropout rate. But given that only about half the city's high school students graduate in four years, indications are that many Hispanic high school students here face bleak odds. More than half of all recent male immigrants and about 44 percent of females aged 16 to 24 no longer in school do not have a high school diploma, according to a study (in pdf format) by the Community Service Society.

Teenage immigrants face acute disadvantages in the classroom: limited or no English, interrupted educations, and disorientation in the challenging social scene of high school. Outside of school, they often cope with homesickness, separation from one or both parents, and crowded living conditions.
Luperon High School is a bilingual school serving about 400 of the area's recently arrived Latin American teenagers. It opened 12 years ago in the windowless warehouse it still occupies as a language transition program and became a diploma-granting public high school in September 2002."

challenges (in pdf format) are formidable: 97.3 percent of students in 2003 were officially English language learners, 62.5 percent of them were overage for their grade. Still, according to the principal's records, it graduated 58 of its 62 students last year, and every member of the senior class is looking at colleges.

Luperon gets its students to stay in school and meet required standards in English and other core subjects because it is ethnically segregated, homogenous and bilingual, says Ofelia Garcia, a professor at Columbia University Teachers College. In an upcoming article, she concludes, "Gregorio Luperon High provides a compelling model of schooling for Latino, newcomer, immigrant adolescents."
Homogenous and bilingual are not popular in education. The left mistrusts homogeneity, while the right remains skeptical of bilingual education. Voters in California and Arizona vetoed bilingual education programs in favor of "English immersion" in 2001. New York is often cited as the next target, though anti-bilingual activists' main focus has been on younger students. "Immersion education is the answer for New York City's children struggling with English proficiency,"
argued Sarah Means Lohmann, a Lexington Institute scholar, in the New York Post.

The teachers at Luperon disagree. "They learn so much better when they're learning in their own language," said Ydanis Rodriguez, who teaches social studies. Only in their senior year at the school do students take every class except Spanish Language Arts in English. Rodriguez said that allowing students to grapple with freshmen and sophomore science, mathematics and social studies in their native language stops them from falling behind in these subjects. And when students fall behind, they are more likely to give up on school and drop out.

The all-important results for the state's Regents exams back up Rodriguez's argument. Students must pass five of these tests to graduate with a Regents diploma. Almost 55 percent of the Luperon class of 2004 achieved 65 or higher, about the same as the citywide average and far above the rate for what the Department of Education considers similar schools..

The use of Spanish encourages parental participation, which Luperon principal Juan Villar said is crucial in keeping his students in school. The New York Immigration Coalition has
(in .pdf format) that 47 percent of parents with a limited knowledge of English could not access any school information or services in their native languages.

At Luperon, if a student fails to arrive by 10 a.m., his or her guardian will immediately receive a telephone call. "Open School Night" meetings bring more than 200 attendees, and guardians can drop into the school at any time.

Most of the staff can sympathize with the students and their parents. Villar, who emigrated from the Dominican Republic, tells how he went from living in a shack when he was 16, to attending college in Santo Domingo, and then started over again unloading trucks in America before he put himself through night school and became a teacher.

Villar sets high expectations for his students. "We're planning to send our newly arrived kids to college, so we have to train them to be competitive with those American kids," he said, adding that even after they are in their final years of the school, they must attend 141 minutes each day of English as a second language classes.

The opposition to bilingual education surprises Sarai Paredes and her friend, Angela Morel, who also arrived here from the Domincan Republic as a teenager. "It works," Morel said. "We're the proof