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Newcomer Schools' Reach Out to Older Students in the United States
By Katherine Stapp
Inter Press Service

     NEW YORK, Apr 4 (IPS) - As a new wave of immigration draws thousands of Third World teenagers to the United States, educators are facing the challenge of helping the older among them prepare for today's increasingly demanding job market.
   Statistics show that more than 90 percent of recent immigrants come from non-English-speaking countries, and many are fleeing situations of conflict and extreme poverty, where access to formal schooling is sharply limited.
   Take Tony Dokie, 19, who arrived in New York City from the troubled West African country of Liberia last July. Tony spoke only fractured English, and had less than eight years of formal schooling at home.
   But instead of falling through the academic cracks, Tony enrolled in Liberty High School -- one of the country's few "newcomer schools" -- where the students are all recently arrived immigrants from non-English-speaking countries.
   Liberty's principal, Bruce Schnur, says that 20 percent of his students are now 19 years or older -- too old to be placed in a regular high school, but unprepared to enter college or find a decent job.
   So for the last seven months, Tony, who dreams of going to medical school someday, has been focusing on honing his English skills and preparing to take the Graduation Equivalency Diploma (GED) exam this autumn.
   "War bring me here,'' said the teenager, whose native language is Mamo. ''It was scary. I miss home sometimes, but it's better here in New York ... At my school in Liberia, there were no computers.'' He says that English literacy is his favourite class, not only because it is critical for getting into college, but because it allows him to make more friends in his Harlem neighbourhood.
   ''At some point, they will need to mingle with American kids,'' said Liberty's popular, energetic principal, Bruce Schnur. ''But this place gives them breathing space to adjust.''
   Located in what Schnur describes as ''neutral territory'' in Manhattan's trendy Chelsea neighbourhood, the school's one-year programme offers bilingual education in three languages: Spanish, Chinese and Polish.
   The modern classrooms are populated by young people at various stages of cultural assimilation -- from girls wearing bright Muslim headscarves to boys sporting the traditional American teen uniform of baggy jeans, tee-shirts and sneakers.
   Aged 14 to 20, Liberty's 495 students hail from 36 different countries -- and only a third have completed eight years of schooling in their home country.
   In addition, Schnur says, ''a lot of kids come with serious baggage -- physical abuse, the trauma of being separated from their families and then reunited after a long time.
   ''We constantly change, because the kids change,'' he added. ''One thing I've seen is that now, the kids are much older, and have literacy problems in their own language.''
   This makes the remedial function of newcomer schools even more critical, notes Deborah J. Short of the Washington DC-based Centre for Applied Linguistics, the only group comprehensively studying newcomer schools.
   So far, she says, the newcomer school system has grown up haphazardly, with little national assessment or follow-up tracking. According to the Centre's database, there are about 115 such programmes in the United States, serving a student population of 12,000.
   ''Awareness must be raised because it's important to show that the schools are working,'' Short explained. ''As administrators get more savvy about the power of their computers, they're going to start tagging the kids'' to assess how they make the transition from newcomer schools to regular high schools and colleges. Bruce Schnur agrees. ''Tracking is expensive and hard to do,'' he conceded. ''But it's important so we can evaluate how we're doing, and what we might need to change.''
   Anecdotal evidence indicates that overall, newcomer schools are doing something right.
   ''Other principals say they can always tell the difference between Liberty kids and other kids, because our kids are so well-adjusted,'' Schnur said proudly.
   Liberty, founded in 1986, is one of the oldest. Some 70 percent of newcomer schools were created in the last decade. What makes these programmes different from typical secondary school literacy classes are the low formal education levels of the students and the strong acculturation component, Short explained, which is accomplished through frequent field trips, activities and classes on American culture.
   ''That's a big part of it -- helping kids get used to being here,'' she said, adding that most newcomer schools make an effort to interact with the immigrant community as a whole. ''I've visited a lot of schools, and I've frequently seen a close connection with parents and the community. It's very nurturing.''
   About half of all newcomer programmes are one-year. When the children leave, they are either placed in their regular neighbourhood schools -- most offering some support for non-English-speakers --or helped to earn a GED.
   But Short wonders if one year is long enough. ''It's a challenge,'' she said. ''What concerns me is that they're being put into classes where the teachers may not be qualified. It hasn't done a service to some groups of students.''
     Lately, the trend has been an influx of children coming from war zones in Latin America, Africa and Eastern Europe, or from rural areas with limited access to schools, says Short.
     Shabazz Khuram, a shy, soft-spoken 19-year-old from Pakistan, is one of the students in Liberty's pre-GED classes. In halting English, he talked about his hopes of going to college and his delight at learning a new language.
     ''My family come here so I can get an education,'' he said. ''I'm not sure what I want to be, but here I have opportunity.''
  This article is free of copyright restrictions and can be reproduced provided that Inter Press Service is credited.
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