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An American education: refugees and new immigrants face challenges to graduation

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 9 2013 6:15 p.m. MST

For students who come to the United States with some education, some English or a little more time to catch up before they age out of public education, graduation is possible. Gates teaches English language learners (ELLs) at all levels. In her "level three" group, students demonstrate a growing proficiency in English. Some of these students came to the U.S. already speaking some English; others arrived young enough to learn the language before graduation loomed. Most are excited to graduate.

Angel Perez, an 11th-grader from Guatemala, seems perpetually excited to be in class but says he is nervous about graduation. "I need to learn more things," he explains. "Last year I didn't speak a lot of English, so I got a lot of F's." Perez, who loves chess and is active in the school's NJROTC program, plans to enroll in the school's credit recovery program, completing the makeup packets for the classes he failed during his first year in the country.

Josie Wankier, former ESL coordinator at West and current IB counselor, says that the school often arranges funding for ELL students to participate in the credit recovery program because "they didn't have an equal opportunity to access (the course work) the first time." A few students are even allowed to stay for an extra, "super senior" year to finish credits they missed during their transition to the U.S. Others are referred to local adult education programs where they can pursue a diploma or GED.

The school tracks the progress of ELL students for two years after they leave the school. Wankier reports they are sending more and more students to programs at SLCC, Weber State and the University of Utah.

California and New York City both recently developed plans to expand bilingual and dual language programs so families can choose an educational setting that allows their children to continue making academic progress while learning English, keeping them on track to graduate.

Academic access

Even students who excel academically struggle to adjust to the American high school system. According to Wankier, "Some of our really high (achieving) kids don't have access to (advanced) AP and IB classes" because of a perception that they wouldn't succeed in academically challenging classes unless they were fluent in English. Wankier hopes to change that perception in her new role as the school's international baccalaureate counselor, guiding students who are interested in enrolling in the college preparation program.

Students like Kyaw Aye, an 11th-grader from Thailand, would benefit from such a change. Aye is in regular high school classes and says he is anxious to be done with high school so he can start working and taking college classes. Doodling on the corner of his physics homework, he comments that the work he is assigned in high school is very easy.

The risk for children whose abilities don't align with the curriculum is that they will decide school is not the right place for them. Many immigrant students drop out of school, believing they can better help their families by working. Others, especially girls from traditional families, according to Jaramillo, leave school for early marriage.

In New York City, the Department of Education operates Young Adult Borough Centers offering evening classes to students with daytime work and family responsibilities. In Mississippi, the Columbus School District is reaching out to community groups and churches to host eCenters where students who had dropped out of school can re-enroll in online Skype-based classes to finish high school or prepare for a GED exam.

Wankier, the IB counselor at West, agrees with the community approach. "I wish we put a little more emphasis on educating our families on how to access the education system," she says, "This is a school community. If we don't involve the community … we're not really supporting our students."

Gretchen Krebs has taught general and special education in New York and Utah. She is passionate about finding innovative approaches to meet the needs of all students. Contact her at gkrebs@deseretnews.com

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