Lower East Side School Benefits from Immigrant Work Ethic

BY SUSIE POPPICK

The cafeteria roared with conversation — very little of it in English — and one perplexed student gripped two plastic sporks in one hand, trying to manipulate them like chopsticks.

“That’s how you know a student is new,” said Assistant Principal Rene Anaya. “The students who have been here awhile have gotten used to American customs.”

It was the first day of classes at Lower East Side Preparatory High School, an institution somewhat different from your average New York City public high school. For one, it is a transfer school that accepts students between the ages of 17 and 21. Located just next door to Chinatown, the school is different from other public schools in yet another way — about 90% of students are immigrants from China.

Anaya, along with other teachers and administrators, said he believes the high percentage of immigrants at the school is partly responsible for the school’s success. Although it accepts under-credited students who are failing out of other schools, Lower East Side Prep has been ranked by the city in the top 41 percent of transfer schools.  Though some students take as long as five years to earn their diploma, the school boasts a 90 percent graduation rate — an achievement in a city where just over 60 percent of four-year high school seniors graduate.

The large core of Chinese immigrant students makes the school atmosphere more serious, Anaya said, because these students spend so much energy learning English and catching up that they tend to be less distracted by clothes and drugs. This attitude rubs off on the school’s smaller number of American students, he said.

“They’re like, ‘Okay, there’s no gangs, there’s no drugs, there’s positive things going on here,’” Anaya said. “They are not used to being in this type of an atmosphere, with such a large Chinese population … After awhile, it helps them to kind of look at themselves a little bit and take themselves a little more seriously as students.”

Students fill their trays in the cafeteria at Lower East Side Preparatory High School, where 90% of students are Chinese immigrants.

Students fill their trays in the cafeteria at Lower East Side Preparatory High School, where 90% of students are Chinese immigrants.

A glance around the cafeteria on this first day of class underscores the culture shock American students at the school feel. Amidst chattering in Mandarin Chinese and a flood of Asian faces, two new black students sit at a table together, gazing with bewilderment at the scene around them.

“Race-wise, this is different,” said one of the students, Candice Bullock. “It’s really different, and I’m still getting used to it.”

Bullock, 17, who transferred to Lower East Side Prep after earning poor grades at Flushing High School and St. Vincent Ferrer High School, is sitting with her new friend, Johnny McNeil, 18. McNeil said he hopes to study political science at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania after graduation and is excited to pick up some Chinese from his new classmates.

“I would like to learn,” he said. “I want to blend in with the other kids.”

The fact that so many students at Lower East Side Prep speak Chinese as their first language poses a challenge for the school, which must ensure that students pass New York State Regents exams before they can graduate. To resolve this problem, Anaya said, the school offers both English as a Second Language classes and bilingual courses in all subjects. The students are also permitted to take the Regents in Chinese.

“However, the majority of textbooks are in English,” Anaya said. “So they have to really struggle through learning the material in English, in terms of reading the textbooks and … relying on the teachers to help translate and give them the language that they need to pass the courses.”

Another challenge is that even the most hard-working students cannot always achieve English proficiency before they turn 21, the age past which the city stops counting students in calculations for school funding allocations. Consequently, even in years that Lower East Side Prep is filled to its capacity of 530 students, the school’s budget does not always reflect its needs because the administration allows over-age students to continue towards graduation.

“We don’t turn kids away or kick them out just because they don’t bring in money,” said principal Martha Polin.

City records show that the majority of students, however, perform well enough in their Regents classes to graduate before they turn 22, after spending — on average — two years at Lower East Side Prep.

Returning student Haishan Lin, 20, said that despite language barriers, he learned a great deal in a bilingual science course through physical experiments and hands-on activities last year.

“My favorite thing was experiments and lab,” he said. “I liked when we had to measure … heart rate going up and down.”

Lin said he met many new students on the first day who felt overwhelmed because they could not understand their teachers’ English and needed help from more experienced classmates like him.

“The ESL teachers help, too,” he said. “Of course.”

Most students at Lower East Side Prep do not speak English as their first language and are permitted to take New York State Regents exams in their mother language of Chinese.

Most students at Lower East Side Prep do not speak English as their first language and are permitted to take New York State Regents exams in their mother language of Chinese.

Heather Scott and Richard Ciriello are two ESL teachers at Lower East Side Prep tasked with improving students’ English abilities — in some cases, starting from scratch. About one fifth of the school’s students are in the beginner ESL level.

“It’s really hard because even at the same ground level, kids will have different needs,” Scott said. “Some may be more naturally talented at speaking and others at writing.”

For the first day of classes, Scott handed students in her afternoon ESL group a survey asking them to guess the percentages of Americans who perform certain activities and hold certain beliefs. For example, “How many Americans floss their teeth every day?” and “How many Americans learned about sex from their parents?” Scott found that most Chinese students were most surprised by the high academic failure rates at schools across the United States.

Ciriello took a different approach to his first-day-of-school orientation. He handed out a list of about 20 activities, such as playing a musical instrument, and asked students to walk around the room and find classmates who regularly participate in those activities, as a way for students to get to know each other.

“It’s also building a little bit of vocabulary about everyday activities,” he said.

In her class, physical education teacher Karissa Hofmann introduced students to weight-room equipment, each piece of which was tagged with an English label.

“It’s for safety reasons, of course, but also so the kids learn the correct terms in English,” she said.

Despite the best efforts of teachers and well-meaning classmates, new Chinese students at Lower East Side Prep are still sometimes confounded by American customs.

“We’ve had issues where Chinese kids are standing on the toilets and the American kids are like, ‘Uh, what are they doing?’” Anaya said.

Many new Chinese students at Lower East Side Prep are accustomed to the squat toilets they used back home, he said, and some have never encountered Western-style toilets before.

But the overall culture at Lower East Side Prep is one of tolerance, Anaya said. The teamwork and interaction between American and Chinese students on the school’s boys’ basketball team, which won the league championship during Anaya’s first year at the school, help set a standard for the school, he said.

A remaining concern for the administration this year is keeping up enrollment numbers of students 21 and under. Although about 500 students are registered at Lower East Side Prep this fall, Anaya said, if enrollment of eligible students does not reach 530 by the end of October, the school will have to refund the city for each student they are under in capacity. This same problem cost Lower East Side Prep $175,000 last year, Polin said.

Photos – Susie Poppick

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