New Kids on the Block

Immigrant families try to wade through the school system bureaucracy

Alexander Gutmacher remembers the first day he set foot in the United States, and not because it was almost exactly 10 years ago. He remembers February 2, 1997, as the day he came here with a primary purpose: to get well. After working with a fire department from 1990 to 1994 in Chernobyl, he received a medal of honor for helping clean up the region after the April 1986 nuclear reactor explosion. He also got cancer. And there wasn't a doctor in Ukraine who could help him.

So with the assistance of his uncle and other distant relatives who had lived in the U.S. for decades, Gutmacher left his native country and came to New York to get treatment at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. By the time he arrived in New York, tumors were aggressively spreading through his left leg. He spent the next two and a half years undergoing chemotherapy and radiation. His wife and two sons later joined him here, and he emerged from the ordeal with deep gratitude. "America absolutely saved my life," he says. "Eight years ago, I would be in a cemetery."

Gutmacher, now 49, is healthy, with a full head of thick, black hair. He is an established businessman and leader in Russian and Ukrainian immigrant communities. He owns his own event production company that organizes Eastern European heritage festivals in Prospect Park and an annual gefilte-fish-eating contest in Union Square. His wife owns a dental laboratory.

Gutmacher: "America absolutely saved my life."
photo: Mark Hartman
Gutmacher: "America absolutely saved my life."

He has assimilated relatively well into American life. He mentions frequently that he is a professional, not someone on food stamps. He glows with pride as he flips through one of the many photo albums he keeps in his office that has pictures of himself with New York politicians like Mayor Mike Bloomberg and former mayoral candidates Fernando Ferrer and Mark Green.

Despite all of his gratitude and accomplishments, Gutmacher has had one major frustration in recent years: the city's public schools. He says he was happy to learn abo ut the new small schools opening in 2002, the same year his son Mikhail was starting high school. But when it came time to enroll, Gutmacher—who still speaks somewhat broken English—had difficulty understanding how the high school enrollment process worked.

The only small school he found that could accommodate his son, who is classified as ELL, or "English Language Learner," was in the Bronx. But from the Gutmachers' home in the Midwood neighborhood of Brooklyn, near Coney Island, Mikhail's daily commute would have been at least two hours each way. Gutmacher felt he had no other option but to send his son to Midwood High School, a 4,000-student school known for its accelerated programs in science and math but criticized for not paying enough attention to neighborhood students.

The experience has been the same for many other immigrant parents, eager for their children to excel in the city's schools but often frustrated when language barriers keep them from participating as actively as they'd like.

When the New York Immigration Coalition issued a report at the end of November about the effect of school reform on immigrant students, supporters of Mayor Bloomberg's small-school movement were surprised to learn of the coalition's findings. The report, "So Many Schools, So Few Options," concluded that the city's approximately 37,000 high-school-aged ELLs haven't been given full access to New York's nearly 200 new small schools.

One significant problem for immigrant parents, the report says, is the difficulty in navigating the school system. According to the report, only 25 percent of parents surveyed said they received information from the department of education about high school fairs, the main venues for learning about the selection process. More than half of the parents who did receive information about the fairs said the notices weren't in their native language, which violates education department policy.

That finding echoes research the New School's Milano graduate school published three years ago that found that the majority of immigrant parents weren't receiving school notices in their native languages.

And with a school system as large as New York City's, procedures can be difficult even for native English speakers. New York's high school selection process involves families ranking their top choices, but all the various options can muddy the process. Students can choose among neighborhood schools, small schools, selective schools, and charter schools. The latter two options often require separate applications altogether.

Deycy Avitia, an education reform program associate with the New York Immigration Coalition who worked on the group's recent report, says that since the findings were made public, she has received several calls from teachers and counselors with anecdotes of their own difficulties trying to place ELL students. One parent coordinator in Flushing, for example, contacted the coalition because she wanted help relocating an ELL student in her school who was commuting from Jackson Heights. "They're now trying to plug into the advocacy," says Avitia.

Avitia also says that the education department agreed to meet with the coalition to discuss the report's findings and recommendations.

For Gutmacher's son Mikhail, who graduated last June, that will be too late. The 19-year-old is living at home, and his father says he's hoping to enroll at Baruch next fall. But Gutmacher remains active with the Metropolitan Russian American Parents Association, which helped the New York Immigration Coalition in its recent report. "My hope for the new generation," he says, "is for more small schools, not just for the rich or geniuses, but for the imaginative and creative."

But some parents say the problem isn't just with enrolling their children in the small schools. Teófilo Manón, an immigrant parent from the Dominican Republic, says a major problem was parental involvement.

Manón's son Miguel first went to Liberty High School in Manhattan, one of the eight city high schools responsible for improving English language skills. But when students pass language proficiency tests, they have to transfer. When it came time for Miguel to transfer, Manón wasn't sure how to choose a high school for his son. He says he was disappointed when he attended department of education meetings on high school options and only 15 to 20 parents showed up.

On the other hand, he also knew that when he did show up to school meetings, nothing would be translated. "The meeting would be in English, of course," Manón says. "But the notes were also in English. Nothing was translated."

As a result, Manón never had a sense of the choices he and his wife had about where to send their son to high school. So Miguel went to Bushwick High, a large school in Brooklyn. Miguel finished high school last June as part of the last class to graduate from the school, which closed last year because of poor academic performance. Four small high schools currently occupy the Bushwick building, and Miguel now lives at home with his parents. He isn't working, but his father says he will go to college.

Though his son is no longer in the city's public schools, Manón still feels involved in the New York school system. He says he hopes to see a major overhaul when it comes to the schools and immigrant families. "I know small schools are better," he says. "But that's not a solution. The problem is so much bigger than that."

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