getting to graduation

New York City’s English learners often struggle to graduate, but here’s how some schools buck that trend

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Students in AP Chemistry at High School for Dual Language and Asian Studies are taught in English and Mandarin.

As students settle into their AP chemistry class, the teacher gets through some housekeeping announcements in English and then switches to Mandarin to begin the day’s lesson.

The class is taught in both languages, to a group of students made up mostly of current or former English Language Learners — as is their school, High School for Dual Language and Asian Studies on the Lower East Side.

Principal Li Yan says that challenging courses like this college-level class are one of the key reasons students at his school do so well. Less than 51 percent of current and former English Language Learners graduated citywide last year, far below the city average of about 73 percent. At Dual Language high school, where roughly 80 percent of students are current or former English learners, almost every senior earned a diploma last year.

“You can’t automatically assume they can’t do things. They can,” Yan said. “You have to have high expectations.”

About 13 percent of New York City’s 1.1 million students are considered English learners — a group of students that can be among the toughest to serve. Last year, while the dropout rate for the city overall declined, the dropout rate among English learners jumped to 27 percent — an increase of more than 5 percentage points from the year before.

But Dual Language high school and a handful of other schools across the city manage to buck that trend, providing valuable lessons for how to better serve these students.

For instance, Dual Language high school tries to enroll a healthy mix of native English and Chinese speakers to make the dual-language model work. Dual-language schools split instruction into two languages, so math class may be taught in English one day and in Mandarin the next.

Asian students in New York City are already more likely to graduate than their peers. But Dual Language high school pays special attention to make sure English learners don’t get caught in red tape that could keep them from earning a diploma. The school’s program is set up so students can move easily to higher-level English courses, even mid-year, rather than getting stuck in classes their language skills have outgrown. Schedules are constantly monitored and changed to meet students’ needs.

“This is important,” Yan said. “You can’t get to senior year and say, ‘This kid needs five English classes.’”

In research circles, dual-language programs are often singled out as a highly effective way to teach English while also allowing students to maintain their native language.
In New York City, however, a group of schools has shown remarkable success using a different approach.

The Internationals Network for Public Schools is a nonprofit that helps run more than a dozen schools in New York City, catering exclusively to recently arrived immigrant students. Last year, its schools’ average graduation rate was 74 percent, according to Director Joe Luft. That’s higher than the citywide rate for all students.

Students at Internationals schools learn both subject content and English in the same classes in what’s called an “integrated” model. The teachers work together across subjects to make sure students learn the vocabulary they need before conducting a science experiment or taking on a new math concept.

“Language and content are inseparable,” Luft said. “You need to teach them real high school content. You can’t wait until they know enough English to do that. You have to do both simultaneously.”

Group work and projects are also core to the network’s teaching strategy. Students are deliberately mixed based on grade level and individual strengths, ensuring they have as many opportunities as possible to practice their language skills and learn from each other.

They are encouraged to communicate the best way they can — even if that means speaking in their native language. Though it might seem counterintuitive, letting students draw on their existing language to express themselves and understand classroom commands or content is actually an effective strategy, said Miriam Eisenstein Ebsworth, a director in New York University Steinhardt’s division of Multilingual Multicultural Studies.

“If you stick somebody in a total immersion situation, how would you know what’s going on?” she asked. “It’s traumatic, it’s unhelpful and it really slows them down.”

Internationals Network schools focus only on the needs of English learners. But Robert F. Kennedy Community High School in Queens is proof that a typical high school can also serve these students well.

Robert F. Kennedy is an “educational option” school, meaning it intentionally admits students across a range of academic abilities. As a result, the student body is closely aligned with the demographics of the city as a whole. Eleven percent of the students are English learners, and among them are Spanish, Chinese and Arabic speakers. Eighty-six percent of its current or former English learners graduated last year.

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Robert F. Kennedy Community High School Principal Anthony Barbetta and Assistant Prinicpal Maria Toskos

Like Internationals schools, Robert F. Kennedy uses integrated instruction, where English language and content are taught side by side. The school puts an emphasis on including English learners in sports, clubs and school celebrations.

“They need to feel part of the community,” said Maria Toskos, an assistant principal who helps oversee services for English learners at the school.

Robert F. Kennedy has been able to avoid problems that plague other schools statewide. State rules, enacted last year, require that teachers in integrated settings either be certified in language instruction, or work as a co-teacher with a colleague who has the credential.

But there are consistently language teacher shortages. Co-teaching is costly and requires teachers to work together closely — and well.

But Robert F. Kennedy has a stable of dual-certified teachers. In co-teaching cases, before teaching assignments are made, Barbetta said he asks teachers for their placement preferences — and the school makes an effort to honor those requests.

“There’s really buy-in,” said Principal Anthony Barbetta. “We’re fortunate.”

New York City has come under scrutiny for how well it serves English learners, and recently announced it will open 68 new language programs. The city hopes to have every English learner in a bilingual program by 2018.

Still, people who work with English learners or study their progress say better data is needed to help more students make it to graduation. Some advocates objected recently when Chancellor Carmen Fariña seemed to downplay the city’s role in that process.

Ebsworth, the NYU professor, said it’s hard to predict who will earn a diploma and who won’t. Each English learner is unique: Some come from their countries with a solid academic foundation, others come with little or no formal schooling. They may have some experience with the English language, or none at all.

To better understand how to serve them, experts want to learn more about those who don’t graduate. Are they stumbling on specific exams? Are students with less formal schooling more likely to drop out? What role does a family’s economic needs play?

“We can’t tell what the outcomes are being influenced by,” she said. “There’s a big problem with the data.”

'A Significant Change'

Done doing ‘more with less,’ Brighton district will move to a four-day school week

PHOTO: Seth McConnell/The Denver Post
Students in Alicia Marquez's 6th grade science class at Overland Trail Middle School in Brighton watch a video and work on home work in August 2017. (Photo by Seth McConnell/The Denver Post)

Students in the Brighton school district will attend school just four days a week starting next school year.

Officials with the fast-growing district north of Denver announced they were considering the change earlier this year after voters turned down a request in November for more local taxes, the latest in a string of defeats for District 27J. This week, they made it official.

There are already 87 school districts in Colorado that use a four-day week at all their schools, but until recently, the phenomenon was largely limited to rural districts. Brighton will be the largest school district in the state on a four-day week

In response to the concerns of working parents, the district will offer paid child care for elementary-aged children every Monday, when school is closed, officials said. Teachers will work some Mondays on planning and professional development.

The change is expected to save the district about $1 million a year, but Brighton Superintendent Chris Fiedler previously told Chalkbeat that the biggest benefit will be “to attract and retain teachers” in a district whose salaries are among the lowest in the metro area.

“I realize this will be a significant change for our students, their families, and the communities we are so fortunate to serve, but our district can no longer be expected to do more with less financial resources,” Fiedler said in a press release.

A mill levy override, a type of property tax increase, hasn’t been approved in District 27J since 2000. A 16th request for more revenue failed in November.

“We are 100 percent committed to providing our students with the necessary skills and competencies that will enable a future far beyond graduation,” Fiedler said. “To that end, I believe it is in our students’ best interest to provide high-quality, engaged teachers using 21st Century tools for learning four days a week rather than not have them five days a week.”

Local union president Kathey Ruybal told Chalkbeat that teachers showed “overwhelming support” for the change.


‘Everything is different now’: Stoneman Douglas librarian reflects one month after shooting

Stoneman Douglas media specialist Diana Haneski, center, at the school's walk-out event.

One month ago, Diana Haneski was hiding in an equipment closet at Stoneman Douglas High School. She’s the school’s media specialist, and when the lockdown was announced she herded students into the closet, where she texted family members and waited, listening to the sounds of helicopters overhead.

Seventeen people were killed in the shooting that day at her Parkland, Florida, school. In the days that followed, some of Haneski’s students reignited a national movement against gun violence. Students returned to Douglas two and a half weeks ago, and that library is now a counseling hub for traumatized students and teachers.

You might know Haneski’s name because of this chilling story about her longtime friendship with Yvonne Cech, who was the librarian at Sandy Hook Elementary School when 26 were killed there. I reached out to Haneski because I know her — she became close friends with my mother when they worked together at Westglades Middle School, which is next door to Stoneman Douglas.

I wanted to know how she was adjusting to the wrenching changes to her work and her community, and what learning looks like now at her school. Here’s some of our conversation.

There’s such a huge wave of news coverage when something like this happens, and we hear less as people who work with students settle back in to their routines and people have returned to those same spaces. I was hoping we could talk about how you’re thinking about your library, and how you’re thinking about the job that you do every day after something like this.

Everything is different now. The library, half of it is counseling. Everyone needs some help still.

The first few days back there were so many people from the district. I mean, anyone that had a teaching certificate who worked for the district that wasn’t in a classroom, they were asked to come to our school and support us. Anyone who wanted help from someone certified in what they teach could have had someone at their side that first week.

And really, they were not trying to really teach anything. They were trying to heal and help. There was no big push to teach. Now, there are kids who really want to learn and want to have regular classes. There are also kids who are just not ready to learn yet. And there are teachers who are having trouble with what they’re supposed to do as well.

So there’s counseling going on to help with all of this. That’s really the number one thing going on in the library. In addition to all these kids coming in the library, there are therapy dogs. As soon as I realized how important dogs were, I was asking the superintendent, asking everyone, can I have a dog in the library, please, for this week and next week?

Now there are two or three in the library. The kids just want to sit there and pet them — it relaxes them, it gets them in a position where they can maybe start talking to a counselor. It’s helps the counselor get the kids to start talking. I’ve seen it work.

It’s unbelievable to see the things coming our way from around the country and around the world, from schools and from random people. I get handwritten notes from people I don’t know who just want to write to me and say how bad they feel and want to send their love and support.

In general, kids still need to talk. Fourth period is when this horrible thing happened to us. We’ve had two fourth periods since we’ve had full days. And they’re hard. You end up with more kids in the library. They just want to hang, and be really close to each other, and to talk.

What was it like after the walkouts on Wednesday?

It was really great. A lot of people went to the football field. Some kids felt compelled to walk to where the memorials are, north of our school. And then some of them came back. That caused a little bit of mayhem, kids leaving and coming back. But they want to be part of something.

They ended it with the song the kids wrote. It was really moving. And as we were out there on the field, we see the Westglades [Middle School] kids coming on the other side of our fence. They’re making noise and they’re waving at us. And as we were first coming out onto the field, there were people from the community on the other side of the fence waving at us and supporting us. So that was kind of nice. And then we ended it with a group hug.

As I came back in, the classrooms were very empty. Then I passed the front office and saw a crowd of kids trying to come back. This is what it is now. We were taking care of business, making sure kids are doing OK and getting what they need.

What’s surprised you about everything that’s happened since the shooting?  

The whole controversy with, should a teacher have a gun. The fact that you can actually have a conversation with someone and they could be like, well, of course they should have one. I mean, I don’t know if I should say this, but I looked for my keys and my phone yesterday for a little longer than I want to admit to. For me to be responsible for a gun? I went to school to be a librarian, media specialist, teacher.

Here’s what’s surprising me. That this could happen — and our kids are being vocal, and sound very logical, and I’m very proud of them — and they go up to Tallahassee with this optimism and enthusiasm, and they think that they’re going to get their voices heard because the legislature is in session. And they get there, and it’s like a slap in the face.

How can it be so hard to say, you shouldn’t sell an AR-15 to an 18-year-old? Why is that so hard? The realization of the power of the NRA, that has surprised me. I didn’t really pay attention to that before.

My life is really different now. No one wants to be a part of that club, surviving a mass shooting. And I’m also an activist. I didn’t really think about myself as an activist. I did learn from my father, rest in peace. He was in politics, and I learned from watching him and helping him. And I learned that you’re supposed to talk when you can make a change.

And knowing that if we’re quiet, it’s just going to go away. Really, if little children in Sandy Hook getting killed didn’t make much of a change, if 50-odd people in Las Vegas at a concert, if that didn’t make much of a change? We have to do something.

I saw you asked for book recommendations for your students — or maybe teachers? — on Facebook. Have you gotten responses? Is that still on your mind, what they will want or need to read?

Yes, teachers really need more material and different resources than they needed before. We do yoga in the library on Monday afternoons, and I was stretching and I looked up at a shelf and there was this book on display — “The Gun Fighter.” That is not a book I want on display right now!

People have been amazing, especially media specialists. FAME, the association for Florida media specialists, has been so kind to me. They’ve started compiling resources, nonfiction and fiction — anything that might help in this area, so that we can help with coping and healing, and also stories that might be inspiring, show kids going through a struggle or pain or hurt and coming out OK.

I know reading is really important to you. Have you managed to read anything yourself this last month?

The first week I didn’t even want to eat. And I really couldn’t get my head to read, which was very unusual. That took me a while; I think it was two weeks before I could. And I started with listening to a book.

I did that because people have been so nice — media specialists have sent me gifts, sharing an audio book, giving me an Amazon gift card and saying, get the books you need to read. I’m also on the Florida Teens Read committee, which means I have to read a lot of books. I told one of them, I don’t know I’ll be able to read the books I need to, since they’re in the school. So they shared their audio books, and I got lucky — one was “Letters to the Lost,” about writing letters to those who have gone.

So yes, I have read three books in these last two weeks. It’s part of moving forward and living my life. And I know there are 17 that couldn’t, and then their heartbroken families.