Finding a High School for an Immigrant Child is Tougher than you Think

The maze of America

Ralph Antony Louissant is a sweet-faced 16-year-old, tall with closely cropped hair. Quiet and polite, he greets a visitor to his aunt's apartment with a soft "bon soir."

He arrived from Haiti in August to join his sister Carla, his aunt, and his cousins in Brooklyn. His family's attempts to get him registered in a New York City public high school started back then and culminated during two weeks in September, in an odyssey through five public high schools, trying to find one that would accept him.

Such is the situation with many English-language learners (ELLs), advocates say, where more than half of New York City's new small schools—the centerpiece of Chancellor Joel Klein and Mayor Michael Bloomberg's reorganization of the city's education system—have student bodies in which less than 5 percent are ELLs. And despite a number of rulings saying that each school must provide services for ELLs, Ralph Antony's experience shows that it's perhaps only through family persistence and the intervention of advocates that many immigrant students are getting the services to which they are entitled.

Ralph Antony Louissant just wanted a school to take him.
Cary Conover
Ralph Antony Louissant just wanted a school to take him.

In March 2006, the Citywide Council on High Schools, a parent group, filed a civil-rights suit with the U.S. Department of Education's Civil Rights Division, accusing the city's Department of Education of discriminating against ELLs and special-education students. The group is awaiting a determination in the case.

Ralph Antony and his sister Carla live with their aunt Michelle Xavier and cousins Thierry and Stephanie in a walk-up apartment south of Prospect Park. Devout Seventh-Day Adventists, they are very active in their church. Michelle is a cook at a Seventh-Day Adventist school, Carla (who is taking a semester off from York College) baby-sits for their pastor's children, and Ralph Antony attended a Seventh-Day Adventist high school in Port-au-Prince, where he learned some English.

While Carla and Michelle sat on a beige couch in their Brooklyn apartment and Thierry and Ralph Antony stood nearby, they related the tale of their quest to get Ralph Antony into a high school, each picking up as the other left off and translating each other at times. Ralph Antony had carefully saved all his papers, and Carla clicked on her cellphone calendar to verify the dates on which things happened.

Parents and guardians of students who have recently arrived or who have moved into New York City are told to go to one of 14 enrollment centers. In August, the Xavier-Louissants took Ralph Anthony to one that was then located at Clara Barton High School in Crown Heights. They were told to get him immunized, and when they returned a week later they were told that they needed to get the form notarized. They had waited all day, Michelle taking off the whole day from her job, bringing Ralph Antony, with Thierry, a senior at New Utrecht High School, there to translate.

"They didn't tell us anything about that before," said Carla, a striking young woman, wearing a red sweater with an American flag across the chest.

They returned on September 6 with the notarized immunization form in hand only to be told that the enrollment center didn't have his file anymore. They waited for a second worker, who also couldn't find his file. "She also told us that she had a problem with his report card," said Carla. "It was all in French."

Aren't they supposed to have translators? I asked.

"The lady who could read French was out to lunch," said Thierry, "and never came back."

In the third week of September, Ralph Antony was finally sent to the High School for Human Rights, one of the small schools in the old George Wingate High School.

"They told us there was no room for a 10th-grade ESL student," said Carla. The family traipsed back to the enrollment center.

The next day they were sent to the International High School at Prospect Heights in Crown Heights. One of the initiatives of the Klein administration is to increase to nine the number of international high schools across the city. These schools are designed for ELLs, and serve only them.

But despite being sent there by the enrollment center, they were told there was no room for Ralph Antony. The person who spoke to them suggested they try another small school in the building, the Brooklyn School for Music & Theater.

There, Ralph Antony was asked if he could play an instrument. He had studied the piano for five years, so he was asked to audition.

He played "When the Saints Go Marching In" and what Thierry called "a little piece from Mozart," and was asked to sight-read another piece of music. "A guy watching said he was really good," said Thierry.

Yet when they got home, they were greeted with a message on their answering machine from the school's 10th-grade guidance counselor, who said they couldn't accept him because of his level of English-language proficiency. Had they given him an English test? No.

Back to the enrollment center. Thierry suggested the ESL program at New Utrecht High School, where he goes. The enrollment office said no. Carla had suggested John Dewey High School, where she had learned English, but again the answer was no.

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