Immigrant kids graduation rate too low: Study

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Queens may be home to people who speak 167 languages, but two immigrant advocacy agencies contend the schools in the borough and throughout the city are failing when it comes to helping children learn English so that they can graduate from high school.

“New York’s immigrant families are being robbed of the opportunity to achieve the American Dream,” said Margie McHugh, executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition, at a Manhattan news conference Tuesday.

“As Mayor Bloomberg takes control of New York City schools, we call on him to make the goal of increasing graduation rates for English Language Learners a top priority,” McHugh said. “We ask the mayor not to fix things that are not broken but rather to fix things that are broken. This is broken.”

A report issued jointly by the New York Immigration Coalition and the Advocates for Children said high school dropout rates among immigrant children trying to learn English in the city’s public system are alarmingly high and accelerating.

It termed the dropout rate of 31.7 percent among English Language Learners “intolerable” but predicted it was headed for 50 percent.

The Board of Education did not respond to a request for reaction to the report.

Jill Chaifetz of Advocates for Children said one of the biggest contributors to the high dropout rate was that 59 percent of teachers of English to immigrant students are either uncertified or nearing retirement.

She said many immigrant students not proficient in English are persuaded to quit school and get a GED certificate, which they find later does not compare with a high school diploma when they seek a job or apply for college.

McHugh said that in some cases students trying to learn English are denied admission to public high schools on the grounds that they are too old.

“We have talked to many who say school officials asked their age and then told them they were ‘over age,’ even though most were no more than 18, and told them they could not be accepted,” McHugh said. “Most people do not know that New York state law allows students to remain in high school until they are 21.”

Two youths originally from the Balkans told of their problems trying to enter Queens’ schools as new Americans.

Jorgji Dhima, a Ridgewood resident who came to the United States from Albania, said he was discouraged from attending several Queens schools.

“I found out about Manhattan Comprehensive Night and Day High School and I am now graduating,” Dhima said.

Fatmir Hodzic, an immigrant from Montenegro who also lives in Ridgewood, was also turned away after approaching a school in Queens.

“I wanted to go to high school close to home when I was 17,” he said. “They said I was over age and suggested I try for a GED. I have graduated from Manhattan Comprehensive School.”

McHugh suggested that haste on the part of some schools to rid themselves of non-English-speaking students arises out of fear that the students might not graduate, thus counting against graduation rates.

Students who were interviewed for the report but whose names were withheld included one boy who said his teachers and counselors suggested he get a GED. “They made me feel they did not want me around,” he said.

Another young immigrant in pursuit of education told of similar experiences.

“One teacher in particular did not like the fact I couldn’t speak English that good. I avoided him and I’d cut his class because I was tired of him making fun of me. He was a big reason for me dropping out,” said the 19-year-old male student.

Songyun Kang, community development coordinator for the Flushing YMCA, said that since almost half of all families in New York City speak a language other than English at home, the schools need to take that into consideration.

“At the YMCA, students bring us notices from their teachers and school officials meant for parents. We translate them from English into all these other languages so the students can take them home to their parents,” Kang said. “This goes on Monday through Friday every week.”

The report said that of the 140 languages spoken by English Language Learners, 64 percent spoke Spanish. Of the rest, Chinese accounted for 10.8 percent, Russian for 3.2 percent, Haitian for 3.1 percent, Urdu for 2.7 percent, Bengali for 2.6 percent, Korean for 1.8 percent, Punjabi for 1.2 percent, Albanian for 1.2 percent and French for 1.1 percent. Those languages together accounted for 95 percent of English Language Learners.

Reach contributing writer Philip Newman by e-mail at or call 229-0300, Ext. 136.

Posted 7:06 pm, October 10, 2011
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