For new immigrants, language isn't the only barrier.
For many immigrant parents, the very idea of high school choice is a foreign one. They aren't used to the notion that parents have options. Some are fearful that advocating for their child may be seen as a challenge to authority. Mothers, in particular, may not be accustomed to advocating for their children in the way that the New York City high school application process often requires, particularly if they come from countries in which married women typically defer to their husbands on important decisions.
These are the findings of interviews with 20 immigrant parents and four parent advocates conducted by the Center for New York City Affairs. The parents were identified at high school fairs, by advocacy groups or referrals from guidance counselors and were interviewed in Spanish, if that was their native language, or in English.
While the Department of Education (DOE) has made progress in its efforts to provide interpreters and translate important documents into many languages, these interviews suggest that the school admissions process poses special problems for non-English speakers.
The findings are important because 42 percent of all New York City schoolchildren come from families where English is not the primary language spoken at home, and 13 percent of all students are deemed English-language learners (ELLs).
"In Mexico, parents don't have to be thinking about these things because schools know better than parents," says Lucia Guzman, a Mexican immigrant whose daughter is an eighth grader at Sunset Park Prep, a Brooklyn middle school.
"Here, I am like a blind person," says Lourdes Ruiz, a Brooklyn mother who decided to send her daughter to Catholic high school after she was rejected at all seven of the choices she listed on the high school application. "In Ecuador, you don't have to choose because all schools are the same."
Some immigrant parents have embraced the school choice system and are happy with the opportunities offered. Ruth Larios, a Mexican-American woman who has lived in Brooklyn for 16 years, says her son, who attends Sunset Park Prep middle school, was admitted to his first choice school, Brooklyn Tech.
But others are bewildered by the complex application process. Paula Tequiksi, a Mexican immigrant with a third-grade education, said she received muddled and contradictory information about high school admissions from her son's school, JHS 22 in the Bronx, despite going to the school in person three times to ask for help. She asked for a directory in Spanish but got no response. "My son helped, but he didn't know anything either,' she says. "I didn't know which school would be the best for my son. It bothers me that they don't have an expert at the school."
A staffer at JHS 22 acknowledges the printed version of the directory hasn't been available in Spanish for the last two years. "We helped out Paula a lot, but she's right that the school didn't have the directory in Spanish," says the staffer, who asked not to be identified because she isn't authorized to speak for the school. "I have called the central office several times trying to get the translated book. After trying several times, they gave me a CD version and suggested I print out the information. We did, but the book is 300 pages!"
A mother from Bangladesh who asked not to be identified says her son was rejected at his first choices, Midwood, Madison and Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn. He was eventually assigned to Abraham Lincoln High School, but she says he doesn't like it because of its emphasis on sports teams, which don't interest him.
"The guidance counselor wasn't helpful," she says. "I went to DOE headquarters at Chambers Street. They were nice, but they said they couldn't help me. They said that my kids didn't have good enough grades. But my son's friends did get into schools, and they are not better students. I feel guilty. I think it is my fault because I didn't know how to fill out the application. But what can I do? This is the American system. I heard it takes three kids to do well. By my third child I will be okay."
Parents often rely on their children to read the high school directory and to translate the information given at meetings and school tours. Some parents are illiterate in their native language, so they cannot read the materials even if they are translated, according to Rachel Narger, a teacher who arranges for interpreters for parents at PS 230 in the Kensington section of Brooklyn, which serves immigrants from many countries.
There are cultural barriers as well. Many women from Latin America, South Asia and the Middle East are taught to be deferential both to their husbands and to school officials, making it difficult for them to assume the activist role necessary to take advantage of school choice.
"When they come here, the system is expecting them to be active players," Narger says. "Arab and Bengali women aren't used to confronting a teacher or a principal. It is very typical to hear them say 'I don't want to get into trouble.' They are terrified of authority."
How Some Small Schools Serve Students Learning English
Serving students who don't speak English is a particular challenge for small high schools. Some of these teenagers have had their formal education interrupted by war or civil unrest in their home countries. Some arrive from a foreign country in the middle of the year. Others have been in the United States for a number of years but haven't fully mastered academic English. About 41,000 high school students are classified as English-language learners (ELLs) in New York City.
New York City is widely recognized for developing some excellent programs for ELLs. But newly arrived students are often assigned to whatever schools happen to have available seats—rather than to schools that are organized to serve them well, according to advocates and guidance counselors.
Hilda Abadia, a guidance counselor at MS 131 in Chinatown, recalls a new arrival from China who was assigned to Repertory Company High School for Theatre Arts—a tiny school with just 200 students, designed for those who are interested in an acting career. The teachers there had little experience teaching non-English speakers, and only one or two of the other students at the school were ELLs. The Chinese student was expected to read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, in English, as her first assignment. "It was a totally inappropriate placement," says Abadia.
At first, Schools Chancellor Joel Klein exempted new small schools from admitting ELLs; under criticism, he reversed course and required the small schools to accept them. But advocates say many of the schools are ill-equipped to help them. "There's an implicit tradeoff: you can go to any school, but you may not have services there," says Gisela Alvarez, a lawyer for Advocates for Children. "That's not really choice."
Some small schools have developed effective strategies for teaching ELLs. The Internationals Network for Public Schools, which has nine small schools in New York City serving 3,300 students, specializes in teaching English to newcomers while preparing them for college. Rather than segregating students in classes for English as a Second Language for part of the day, instruction in English is integrated with regular academic work. The English as a Second Language teacher works with the subject area teachers to design instruction for each child.
"It's our job to figure out how to make the curriculum accessible to all kids," says Claire Sylvan, executive director of Internationals. For example, she once recruited an Urdu-speaking college student to volunteer to work with an Urdu-speaking child. Sylvan says similar strategies could be used at small schools that don't specialize in serving ELLs. For example, a Chinese-speaking girl might be asked to read a novel in Chinese with a similar theme to the novel being read in English by the rest of the class. Her teacher could ask a Chinese-speaking staffer at a public library for advice.
Klein acknowledges that not all the small schools are equipped, at present, to help ELLs. "We're looking at individual schools and looking at where they don't provide adequate services, what strategies they can use to address them" he says. One strategy, he says, "is to combine schools so that students can get certain kinds of services so that we can reach the scale that is necessary."
"There is no purpose in taking kids if you don't have programs for them," Klein says.