It is a well-known fact that school is a place for students to gain a great amount of knowledge and develop new skills. Therefore, it is of high importance to create appropriate environment for such purposes. In this paper, I will describe and present my opinion considering the possible actions a school administration can take to ensure that all the students are safe and able to study without any threats of discrimination or concern about achievement in today's society. Two main areas of diversity – race and age – will be discussed based on review of the school's implicit and explicit curriculum, practices and policies on the basis of the data I collected in the course of the school setting observation and interviews with the school leaders, teachers, and students.
The school I am going to focus my attention on is Lower East Side Preparatory High School (01M515) – public educational establishment in New York City. It is located in the 145 Stanton Street, lower Manhattan, where there is large and diverse immigrant population of Asian, African American, Hispanic, and other nationalities. Lower East Side Preparatory High School (LESP) was founded forty years ago as a transfer school serving students from the age of 17 to 21. Mostly, the student population consists of Chinese immigrant students, who recently entered the United States. With a long-standing reputation of being a safe place to study, LESP offers teenagers the second chance to get their diploma as transfer students. It attracts people from five boroughs; many of them are transferred from or have even already dropped out of other high schools.
LESP shares a building with the Marta Valle Secondary School, which is why the cafeteria, gym and the auditorium are common. The school is located on the third and fourth floors and has more than 25 classrooms. While student enrollment is constantly growing, some of the school's classrooms often turn out to be too small and cramped. LESP is governed by Principal Martha Polin and two Assistant Principals Rene Anaya and Rhonda Huegel. In total, there are 38 teachers, 4 counselors, and 10 other school faculty members in here. Assistant Principal Rene Anaya in the interview (2011) stated that the school gave students ESL classes in learning English. He says, “At the same time, students get the opportunity to take bilingual courses in science, social study and math so that they are able to take the exams – state exams – in their own languages and do well. The states offer them in Chinese and other languages.” It is very important, in fact, as LESP is a diverse institution.
The school statistics for 2009 showed 577 students enrollment with percentage of 92% and 96% for average daily attendance and number of students who received free lunch respectively. Population’s ethnicity percentage was 2% Whites, 3% Blacks, 4% Hispanic and 71% Asian. In order to find out more about the student body, I interviewed Assistant Principal Ms. Huegel (2011). She provided the latest data of student enrollment in the school. According to her words, there are currently 569 students in the school with an increasing percentage of different race groups of students. In particular, there are 3% Whites, 6% Blacks, 8% Hispanic, and 70% Asian. Ms. Huegel explained the reason of the increased number of other race groups of students: "Because the number of students enrolled in the school is not enough this year, we have a greater number of other students entering the school apart from the Asian immigrants. We welcome more American students to join our school so as to create a better learning environment for our immigrant students. In this way they can better experience the American culture."
Increased number of students from different ethnical groups brings both its advantages and disadvantages to the students and LESP itself. Teachers from the ESL department hold meetings every week to discuss and plan better lessons to address and differentiate student needs in one classroom. In the interview with Ms. G (2011), an ESL teacher who had been working in the school for more than 10 years, I found out that the class size is getting bigger and bigger through the past three years from 25 to 31 students in some cases. Ms. G said, "This year we have more Spanish-speaking students coming from the South American countries, the Dominican Republic and Mexico. Compared to the usual number of 97 percent of Chinese-speaking students in class, we now have more diverse student population. So, we need to find a better way to make all students study together in a fairly treated class." Thus, teachers have to pay special attention to lesson planning so as to make studying better and easier for everyone.
Still, students have their own point of view considering the undergoing changes. In order to gather relevant information, I randomly talked with 5 students from different ESL classes (2011). Face-to-face, we discussed how each of them felt about his/her lessons, where students from different ethnic groups were present. The main concerns that I heard were about communication and learning habits. Student A (20 years old), an Asian female who had been attending LESP for more than 2 years, said: “They [students of other nationalities] are funny, but I understood that there is a wall between us, which is why we cannot establish friendly relations, like the ones we have with Chinese students.” Student B (17 years old), male ESL1 student from Gambia who joined LESP less than a month ago, said: “I like to make friends with them, but I cannot talk to them in English. My English is not good.”
Students admit that language barriers affect their ability to communicate with each other. Apart from the communication issue, they find it hard to get used to each other’s learning styles and classroom setting. Student C (19 years old), another ESL2 Asian male who had been in LESP for one semester, said: “They like to talk in class, while I like to think on my own first. The class is sometimes too noisy.” Student D (17 years old), ESL2 female student who came to the school 2 weeks ago, stated: “They learn very fast, but I need more time to learn.” The fact that students experience difficulties when getting used to each other’s learning styles often creates misunderstandings.
I believe that the school should hold specialized workshops to help students’ psychological development and assimilation, as overwhelming majority of population in school are immigrants, which is why they are in need of extra care and time to get used to this new environment and start perceiving it as a safe place to stay and study. It is also necessary for teachers of all subjects to help students understand the importance of getting along with other people, no matter what their nationality or background is. All faculty members of the school should work harder to help students perceive the school as an appropriate place to provide them with essential experience. In this way, students will be able to fit into today’s diverse community much more easily.
It is necessary to mention that unlike many other public high schools, LESP did a very good job in developing strong ESL and bilingual programs for its students. This can really help to solve the issues caused by misunderstandings between different races. LESP views the ESL program as very valuable, as the school was founded based on the mission of assisting immigrant students in academic success achievement, and at the same time in experiencing new culture and society they are going to live in. Students are urged to learn the new language in order to fit into the American society.
One of the ESL teachers, Mr. C, told me that he had been working in this school for more than 5 years (2011). With the help of this rich experience, he understood that he was not only teaching students a new language, but also learning a new culture himself at the same time. In particular, Mr. C described how he learned more about the Chinese culture from his students and their parents. He said: "In order to optimize students' learning in the ESL class, teachers should create a comfortable environment for everyone.” It is true that once students see that there are no boundaries between them, they can study much more effectively.
Edward L. Hill evaluated the importance of including the culturally relevant teaching strategy in teaching students from different cultures: “When teaching students of color, it is important to study and consult the knowledge base on respective culture groups. Additionally, understanding how one’s own cultural perspectives, experiences, and preferences influence teaching and learning is essential.” (Hill and Boutte 314) Students at Mr. C’s ESL2 classes are currently doing a project on observing each other’s culture, including traditional greetings, food, and festivals. They also compare and contrast the similarities and differences of their cultures. One of their activities is videotaping the group acting on specific things that interest them most in their research. Then, all videos are posted at the school website. From my observation at Mr. C’s class, I saw that before students started this project, they only liked to work with people from their motherlands. But owing to this experience, they were getting to know each other better and became willing to learn something new from each other’s cultures.
Among the other peculiarities of LESP there is a great amount of work it performs to develop different after school programs and activities so as to help students build trusted relationships with their teachers and counselors. For example, the school holds a new-student-welcome barbecue party every year to help newcomers get familiar with their new school. In the course of the academic year, student activity coordinator Mr. F initiates different activities so as to bring fun into LESP and give students a sense of belonging here. Among such events there are after school pot lot dinners, Holiday Talent Show, etc. These activities help to solve the race segregation problems, but I believe that there are still some issues that call for actions.
For instance, there are several Bengali-speaking students who are seldom motivated to join the events. When the school is promoting different activities, there are flyers in English, Chinese, and Spanish distributed to students, but there is no Bengali variant in any of the flyers. At this point, I wonder what the school can do in order to account for the interests of every single student. It is clear that it is impossible to translate all the information materials into all the languages of the world, so another variant should be discovered.
One of the possible ways out that is applied at LESP is establishment of connection between students not only through language, but also with the help of all kinds of hands-on activities. The school develops afterschool programs, which help students earn P.E. credits, including basketball, volleyball and bowling. Students also organize school representative teams to compete with other institutions. This helps create unity, which also gives students a sense of equality, no matter what ethnicity they belong to. Combination of such efforts is really productive in overcoming racial barriers.
Another important area of diversity in school is age. Up to this year, LESP accepted students from the age of 17 to 21. Because of the low enrollment levels, the school started taking students who were 16 years old. As it was already described in here, most local students are immigrants from different countries to the United States who are over aged. What these students need most is to graduate before the age of 21. This is difficult to them, as they come to the country with very limited English language knowledge.
Students in LESP are forced to study within a very limited period of time. They need to learn a new language, and at the same time they are trained to pass all the state Regents Exams. From the statistic of this year’s enrollment, 68 out of 102 new students entered the school in ESL1 classes. About 35% of these 68 students were already in the age of 19. This figures show that these students need to finish their high school year in less than 2 years, while they are in the progress of learning basic English reading and writing.
Here comes the most significant problem that deals with the fact whether these tests would help the students or bring them to a dead end. If the case study in Menken’s article (2008) is considered, it is possible to see the negative influence these tests have, as they were originally created for the Americans. Students are encouraged to graduate with advanced Regents diploma, which requires that they passed eight state exams. English Regents Exam is the most challenging among them for students whose average time of staying in the US is limited to only two years. Apart from the English Regents Exam, students are allowed to take the other exams in their native language. LESP concentrates its curriculum mainly on preparation for the Regents exams, because it is the most topical and difficult for its students.
There is an apparent dropout rate in LESP caused by over age problems that are especially manifested under the pressures of the testing system. I interviewed 3 ESL5 students (2011) considering their opinion on taking the Regents Exams. Two of them said they passed all the regents exams except the English one. One said that he could take and pass all the other regents in Chinese, but when I asked about the English Regents, he said he tried it twice with result of 55 and 63. And this student is to graduate by the end of this semester, which means that he has to take the exam in January of the next year.
I decided to talk to a bilingual counselor about this test. Ms. P said: “There are a lot of students who drop out because of the English Regents Exam. Many of them succeed to pass the other exams by the age of 21, but the state doesn’t allow them to go further. I feel bad for them, as without successful passing of all required exams, they cannot get their diploma. Thus, a lot of them end up stopping attempts to approach any further education career.” (2011). Menken (2008) concludes: “High-stakes testing has an enormous impact on the daily lives of ELLs in schools, and students feel a great deal of pressure to learn English as quickly as possible and improve their test scoresDue to the difficulty of the exams, many students repeatedly retake and fail the teststesting creates an incentive for ELLs to drop out of high school or seek an alternative diploma.” (Menken 117)
As educators, how can we help over-aged students achieve their academic success and at the same time to get what they want within such a limited period of time? LESP has already done a good job in providing students with as many afterschool programs as possible to help them earn the required course credits. Still, not enough is done in solving the age and testing problems. I also think that we should address the other NYC schools with the same question, as it is a cruel reality in case of many educational establishments. Teachers should help introduce changes for students and fight for what is considered to be the best for all of them.
In conclusion, when reviewing data and information I collected from the study of Lower East Side Preparatory High School, I became conscious about the importance of the need to reform the public school education system in New York City. People should see the value of multicultural education and understand the importance of fairness in the testing system. One teacher can make only a slight difference, but if all educators concentrate their efforts together and help influence the education system positively, the life of the next generations can really change.
3 ESL5 students. Personal interview. 25 Oct. 2011.
5 students. Personal interview. 19 Oct. 2011.
Boutte, G.S., and Hill, E.L. African American Communities: Implications for Culturally Relevant Teaching. The New Educator 2 (2006): 311-329. Print.
Menken, K. English learners left behind: Standardized testing as language policy. Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters, 2008. Print.
Mr. Anaya. Personal interview. 10 Oct. 2011.
Mr. C. Personal interview. 18 Oct. 2011.
Ms. G. Personal interview. 18 Oct. 2011.
Ms. Huegel. Personal interview. 10 Oct. 2011.
Ms. P. Personal interview. 25 Oct. 2011.