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Alan Krull, the principal at Manhattan International, chats with students during lunch. Photo by ANGELA HOKANSON

When No Child Left Behind Fails the City’s Immigrant Students: How the use of four-year graduation rates are penalizing the international schools
To view a graphic for this story, click here.

When Edwin Escamilla was 13 years old, his parents told him it was up to him whether to stay in Mexico, or move to the U.S. where his father was already working. After months of debate, Edwin and his older brother William decided to leave their mother and younger sister in Chilapa, a small city outside Acapulco, to join their father in New York City.

Escamilla first enrolled at Manhattan Center, a public high school with some bilingual programs. A guidance counselor quickly noticed that he knew very little English. She suggested he look into one of the city’s eight ‘international’ high schools—small schools created specifically to support recent immigrants who are still learning English.

Now, five years later, Edwin is 18 and in his fifth and final year at Manhattan International High School, the second oldest public international school in the city. He has mastered English, taken physics and calculus, learned to play the guitar and kept playing soccer. He is all set to graduate in May, after which he will either attend a four-year college in upstate New York, or start at a community college and then transfer in order to save money.

His history teacher is convinced Escamilla will do very well in college. “He can hold his own in any college classroom,” said Andy Engel, from Manhattan International. Edwin works hard, has a natural curiosity about the world around him, and has high standards for his own work.

Success like Edwin’s is rare among the city’s English language learners. Teens who know little English finish high school at an average rate of 30 percent, one of the lowest graduation rates of any population in the city. But Edwin has a lot of company at Manhattan International, where the students—all of whom are recent immigrants and are still learning English—graduate at rates that are significantly higher than those of New York City high school students who do know English.

Yet Manhattan International is on its way to being labeled a failure according to guidelines in the federal No Child Left Behind Act. That’s because so many of its students, like Edwin, take more than four years to graduate. The school is currently categorized as a school in need of improvement under the federal act, which means that it is several steps along the path toward being labeled a failing school. Failing schools can be shut down or taken over by the state.

No Child Left Behind’s rules for assessing students with limited English skills are currently in flux as Congress considers the act’s re-authorization this spring.

The law presently examines the progress of all students over the four years they will theoretically spend in high school. Principals at some of the city’s international schools argue that it is unrealistic to expect newly arrived teenaged immigrants to fulfill all their academic graduation requirements in four years. First, they have to master the English language. And linguistics experts say it takes anywhere between four, and seven to 10 years for English learners to reach proficiency.

“How are those kids supposed to graduate in four years if academic proficiency happens in the four to seven-year range?” asked the principal of Manhattan International, Alan Krull.

Not all advocates for immigrant students agree. The National Council of La Raza, a Latino advocacy organization, argues that No Child Left Behind brings much needed attention to the progress of students who are in the early stages of learning English. In the past, many states ignored this population. The federal act lays out serious consequences for schools that do not assess students who are new to English and monitor their progress in both English and other academic subjects.

“The No Child Left Behind Act has been a remarkable step forward for this population in particular,” said Melissa Lazarín, a senior education policy analyst at La Raza.

* * *

The first public international high school in New York was founded in 1985 in an effort to better serve immigrant kids new to the United States. The International High School at LaGuardia Community College in Queens launched the model. Manhattan International followed in 1993, and Brooklyn International opened a year later.

All of the city’s eight international schools share similar educational principles. The classes are mixed by academic ability level and language proficiency level so that students learn from one another. The teachers use group work and collaborative projects, especially when students are still in the early stages of learning English. Language is emphasized across subjects. Teachers create their own curriculum, and tailor their instruction to suit students with a wide range of English language and literacy levels. The classes are all taught in English, though the schools encourage students to maintain their knowledge of their native languages.

At Manhattan International, these principles translate into a 9 th grade English class where the teacher distributed three different textbooks of various reading levels when doing a unit on Greek mythology. A student in biology class answered a question on diffusion in Spanish. Other classes sometimes veer into mini language lessons where students compete over who can say the most things in the most languages. The school celebrates the cultural and linguistic diversity of its students, in an annual ‘Culture Day’ and in smaller, more routine ways.

Most students at Manhattan International not only finish high school—they go on to college. About 90 percent of students continue their education in college, Krull said. The attendance rate, at 94 percent, is also higher than the city average. Researchers credit the school with fostering cross-cultural respect and understanding among its diverse student body. A June 2005 study by researchers from the CUNY Graduate Center called Manhattan International and the two other oldest international schools “a national and international model for intellectual, linguistic, and civic education for youth from across racial, ethnic gender and class lines.”

The school’s curriculum is built around the reality that many students will spend five years in high school. So the student body is bottom-heavy. Students are divided into five thematically-driven clusters, one for each grade, but two for ninth grade. As Edwin did, about half of the entering 9th-grade class repeats a year before going on to 10th grade, said Krull.

The school does not want to promote students to the 10th grade until their English skills will allow them to keep up and absorb that level of academic content, Krull said. This strategy buys an extra year before the students have to take the English Regents exam in 11th grade, a test that they must pass in order graduate.

As a result of this system, Manhattan International’s four-year graduation rate is lower than its five and seven-year graduation rates. The school graduates 60 percent of its students in four years—still substantially higher than the citywide high school graduation rate of 52 percent. Over five years, 78 percent of students graduate, and over seven years, 80 percent of students graduate.

Manhattan International’s high graduation rates are mirrored at its oldest sister schools, Brooklyn International, and the International High School at LaGuardia Community College. Collectively, the three schools boast four-, five-, and seven-year graduation rates of 63 percent, 81 percent, and 89 percent. But all three schools have also been recently censured under the No Child Left Behind Act for failing to meet “adequate yearly progress,” the benchmark that separates the schools that are succeeding from those that are failing.

In New York State, schools calculate adequate yearly progress by evaluating if an increasing number of students pass the state’s exit exams in English and math. Student achievement on these exams is calculated over four years. Manhattan International has a temporary exemption from the state and currently has to administer only the English Regents exam. But the large number of students who repeat a year makes it difficult for the school to get the necessary number of students to pass this test on time, which makes it difficult for the school to achieve the outcomes mandated by NCLB.

“I’m not opposed to standards. But some of them just don’t seem to be realistic,” said Krull. While the principal is worried about meeting the state’s goals, he does not let his concern over the No Child Left Behind benchmarks consume all his energy. The international schools have been around for 20 years, and they will survive this latest questioning of their quality, he said. “We know what our students need. And we will continue to base our curriculum on what they need regardless of what comes down.”

The school missed its annual progress goals in English during the 2004 to 2005 school year, and its progress goals in math the year before. Last year, Manhattan International reached its benchmarks for both subjects—in part, perhaps, because the school did not have to administer the math Regents test. Next year, though, Manhattan International students will have to take both the English and math Regents as well as a science Regents exam. In 2010, the school’s exemption from the Regents exams will expire, and students will have to pass the full gamut of five Regents tests in order to graduate.

Brooklyn International, which also has an exemption from the Regents, missed its annual goals in 2004 to 2005 because it missed its benchmark for English. This year, the school is in good standing with the federal government when it comes to academic progress. The International High School at LaGuardia Community College, however, has been labeled a “school in corrective action” missing its annual goals in English for several years in a row. Schools in corrective action can have staff members removed, their curriculum changed, or their school day extended.

* * *

Linguistics research supports the International schools’ argument that it takes more than four years before students become academically proficient in a new language. Social English, or the type of language needed for casual, ‘schoolyard’ conversation, usually kicks in faster.

A bilingual education researcher at the University of Toronto first articulated the difference in time it takes to learn academic language and social language. Jim Cummins’ research, first published in 1979, showed that it usually takes immigrant children about two years to become proficient in social English, and five to 10 years to become fluent in academic English.

Other linguistics researchers have reached similar conclusions. A 2000 study at the University of California Linguistic Minority Research Institute showed that it took students who were learning English three to five years to develop proficiency in conversational English, and four to seven years to develop proficiency in academic English. The notion that students generally need at least four years to attain academic proficiency in English is a widely accepted concept among bilingual educators, said James Crawford, the former executive director of the National Association for Bilingual Education.

Krull is stunned by the gap between the research about language acquisition and what the federal government is asking him to achieve with students who are still learning English. He thinks the accountability system for schools like his should make room for a five-year term in high school.

Retaining students in grade is less than ideal for both the students and the teachers at Manhattan International. Research on high school drop-outs shows that holding students back even once greatly increases the chances that they will drop out later on. But that pattern doesn’t hold true at the international schools.

One teacher at Manhattan International, Celeste Micelotta, said she initially found it difficult to hold students back when she arrived at the school four years ago. But Micelotta, who has worked with students who are new to English for more than 20 years, said she now sees the merit in doing it.

Students are always upset to learn they will have to repeat a grade, Micelotta said. But looking back on the experience, they tend to see it was done for their benefit. Before Edwin transferred to Manhattan International, his teachers told him he would most likely repeat a grade, so he was not terribly upset when that turned out to be true. His brother William, who is older by a year, started ninth grade with Edwin even though he was at the right age for 10th grade, and then repeated ninth grade along with Edwin. William will graduate this year and plans to attend college in New York City.

Kenia Torres, a senior at Manhattan International who is from the Dominican Republic, said she cried every day for awhile when she found out she would have to repeat 9 th grade. But now, Torres, who plans to study liberal arts at the City University of New York next year, said she knows now it was done for good reason.

“If you cannot speak English you’re not going to be able to understand,” Torres said.

Micelotta underscores the diversity of the English language learner population when she talks about the four-year graduation standard in No Child Left Behind. For some students who have learned some English before they hit high school, graduating in four years is not such a tall order. For others, teens who just arrived from their home countries, or students who are not literate in their home languages, a four-year graduation timetable is less feasible.

“It depends on the immigrant student,” Micelotta said.

One student who did not repeat a grade at Manhattan International, Ewa Stefak, said her prior exposure to English helped her when she arrived in the U.S. Now a 16-year-old in 10th grade, Ewa studied English for about four years before she moved to New York City with her family from southern Poland. Ewa couldn’t really have a conversation in English when she arrived two years ago, but she knew how to read some in English, and she understood grammar, which made a difference in her studies. Ewa plans to go to college, study medicine and become a doctor. She may stay in New York and go to CUNY, or she may venture farther away.

“I wanted to go to California, but I’m not sure about it,” Ewa said.

On the other side of the spectrum, the international schools also admit students who haven’t been able to attend school consistently during their childhood. The schools have enrolled students from the West Bank and El Salvador who have missed chunks of school because of the political situations where they lived. Asking these students to learn English and catch up academically in four years isn’t realistic, said Claire Sylvan, the director of the nonprofit network that links together the city’s international schools.

Despite the problems the four-year graduation standard is causing for schools like the city’s internationals, the National Council of La Raza and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund think that the federal act reinforces the message that states must create quality educational programs for students with limited English, and include these students in regular assessment regimes. The academic achievement of English language learners cannot be improved until schools know what these students are learning and what their current ability level is, said Lazarín.

La Raza and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund belong to a coalition of 25 groups seeking to improve education for Latinos. Peter Zamora, a lawyer for the legal defense fund, testified on behalf of the coalition at hearing of the U.S. House of Representatives on the federal legislation in March. “No Child Left Behind is perhaps the most significant federal education, integration, and civil rights statute for English language learners,” Zamora told Congress.

Lazarín does acknowledge that the four-year cohort system can be problematic for certain limited English students, such as foreign-born students who arrive in the U.S. late in their public school careers. But, most students with limited English skills in secondary schools are not late-arriving immigrants, they are native-born citizens—so the federal law cannot be written with just the needs of immigrant students in mind, Lazarín said.

“I think the challenge is designing a federal law that has some flexibility,” she said.

Lazarín hopes that during the reauthorization process of the law, some provision will be made for immigrant students who arrive in the U.S. late into their education. But Zamora’s testimony focused on the need for appropriate and valid tests of English language learners, as well as the importance of continuing to include these students in statewide accountability calculations.

Until changes are made to the way school achievement is calculated under the national legislation, the leaders of the international schools are left to wonder how they will get their students up to speed within four years, and what will happen to them if they don’t. The International High School at Kingsborough Community College hasn’t been around long enough to have its first graduating class. But when that time comes, the school’s principal, Michael Soet, anticipates having the same problems with the four-year graduation standard that his colleagues are having now.

“No accommodations are made for the fact that these kids are starting high school with no English,” Soet said. “It’s crazy to ask students to pass these exams on this timetable.”

According to Soet and other opponents of the way No Child Left Behind assesses students with limited English, the use of a four-year yardstick as a way to evaluate high schools will impact many more schools besides just the international schools. The four-year standard could put all schools that have a significant population of limited English speakers in jeopardy.

“It’s really only a matter of time until every school that has a significant number of ELLs will be ‘failing,’ ” said Crawford, a bilingual education advocate and author.

Even if Manhattan International may be headed toward failure according to the national standards, the students there don’t see their school, or themselves, that way. Edwin Escamilla has been accepted to Hartwick College and Utica College—both in upstate New York—and he is waiting to hear back from Ithaca. Despite the expense of attending a private school, he might opt to do it. He wants to get out of the city, which can be a distraction, and find a place where he can really focus on his studies.

“I’m really proud of myself and the people who are around me and supported me,
Edwin said. “I think I have been doing a good job.”