New York: English Language Learners as Pawns in the School Systems Overhaul

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Wed May 9 13:05:12 UTC 2007

May 9, 2007 On Education

English Language Learners as Pawns in the School Systems Overhaul

Let's call this the mystery of the missing ELLs. An ELL, you need to know,
is the abbreviation for English Language Learner. These students,
immigrants or their children, are legally entitled to special classes
intended to make them fluent readers, writers and speakers of their new
language. Another way of defining ELLs, though, is frequently as pawns in
the overhaul of New York Citys public schools. And in repeated cases they
have been moved around, shunted aside and denied the very kind of
instruction they are due. As for the missing ELLs, that brain-twister
takes us to Columbus High School in the Pelham Bay section of the Bronx.
Just three years ago, Columbus was a traditional neighborhood high school
with 548 ELLs among its 3,491 students. It served the new Americans with
an entire department devoted to English as a Second Language, with six
licensed teachers.

Fast-forward to the current school year. The Columbus building is now
known formally as the Columbus campus. It includes a downsized version of
the former high school and four minischools, part of the Department of
Educations adoption of the small-school model as the answer to what ails
secondary education in New York City. The Columbus campus has 3,389
students, close to the number of three years ago. Yet of those, only 344
are ELLs. And fewer than one-third of them are in the minischools, which
were not required to accept such students for their first two years of
operation. So where did the missing 200 ELLs go? Nobody at the department
suggests that the number of immigrant students has suddenly dropped. They
have to be somewhere, but where is somewhere? And what is the quality of
the English as a second language services they are receiving there?

Hold on to that question while we take up another mystery. There are 86
ELLs in the four minischools at the Columbus campus, but few if any have
been receiving the required level of English-fluency classes because those
minischools do not offer them. Yet right in the very same building, an
entire department at Columbus High School provides precisely what the
state mandates. Does that make sense? Melody Meyer, a spokeswoman for the
Department of Education, issued a formal statement yesterday acknowledging
that some schools on the Columbus campus are not providing the required
instruction for ELLs. She added that no student should be without the
instruction they need and deserve, and that the department was working
with principals to rectify the situation.

Lisa Fuentes, the principal of Columbus High, referring to the other
schools in the building, said, Youd think wed discuss our programs
together, but we dont. When asked if she would be willing to open her
English as a Second Language classes to students from the minischools, she
replied, Wed gladly do it. Becca Shim is the sole English as a Second
Language teacher at Global Enterprise Academy, one of the minischools,
which has 36 ELLs. While state regulations stipulate separate classes for
each level of fluency three periods a day for beginners, two for
intermediates, one for advanced she said the school allowed her to pull
eligible students from their regular classes for only one period a day.
Rick Levine, the principal of Global Enterprise, said he resisted having
separate ELL classes because I want as much as possible not to segregate
the kids.

So Ms. Shim has roughly 45 minutes to deal with perhaps a half-dozen
students whose English skills differ widely. Global Enterprise, she said,
does not have such basic teaching materials as textbooks and work sheets
for ELLs at any level. But in the rigid division of the campus, a
reflection of the Education Departments antipathy to traditional large
high schools, Ms. Shim and her students are not allowed access to the
separate classes and large number of materials under the same roof. As it
stands now, Im not servicing them as thoroughly as Id like to, Ms.  Shim
said of her students. Theres only one of me. A whole department would be

Among the other minischools, Pelham Prep offers no English-fluency classes
for its 11 eligible pupils, the official course schedule shows. Astor
Collegiate, which has 23 ELLs, hired an English as a Second Language
teacher in March, more than halfway through the academic year. The
Collegiate Institute for Math and Science, the last of the minischools at
the Columbus campus, lumps ELLs of all levels into a single class that
meets for only one period a day and is led by a teacher licensed in
Spanish. The difference is phenomenal, said Christine Rowland, who has
taught English as a Second Language at Columbus for 15 years and also
trains teachers in the subject. I would never say teachers in the small
schools dont care about the ELLs, but theyre not trained. They have 34
kids in a room and two of them are ELLs and they dont know what to do.

Columbus's four-year graduation rate for ELLs stands at 38 percent, Ms.
Fuentes said. On the other hand, the school receives nearly 100 new
immigrants in any given academic year, and its percentage of such students
far exceeds the average. Sunia Rana came to the Bronx from Bangladesh as a
13-year-old in the eighth grade. She made the transition from Bengali to
English during her four years at Columbus, and is now a sophomore at
Hunter, majoring in education. The choice of subject, she said, reflects
the admiration she has for the Columbus teachers who not only nurtured her
in the classroom but stayed after school to work with her on college

Lets not forget, though, about those 200 missing ELLs, teenagers like Miss
Ranas younger self. Perhaps some wound up at DeWitt Clinton or Grace Dodge
Vocational, two Bronx high schools that have had a spike in ELL
enrollment. Ms. Meyer of the Education Department said that many ELLs from
the Columbus area were attending New World High School, a minischool in
the borough. This much is certain: With the pressure of No Child Left
Behind, which uses standardized test scores to determine compliance with
the law, what school would seek out new immigrants, who may not score
well? Columbus, after all, has failed to make adequate yearly progress in
language arts.

The situation at Columbus is, unfortunately, not unique, said Ujju
Aggarwal, an organizer for the Center for Immigrant Families, an advocacy
group. Rather, it points to a proactive strategy fueled by No Child Left
Behind, to continue to marginalize low-income children of color. By
dismantling schools that have historically been under-resourced into
smaller schools under the pretense of choice, immigrant children continue
to be displaced by our public education system. Samuel G. Freedman is a
professor of journalism at Columbia University.  His e-mail address is
sgfreedman at


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