On the advice of their pastor, Jude Lors, they tried one of the small schools at Erasmus Hall High School in Flatbush, where Lors knew someone. Again, they were told that there was no room. "We were upset," said Thierry, "but we kept going."

During one of their visits to the enrollment center, they had met Micheline Cadet Duval, a resource specialist at the Haitian Bilingual/ESL Technical Assistance Center (HABETAC) at Brooklyn College, one of the 14 bilingual-education assistance centers contracted by the New York State Education Department to help ELL students. Carla or her cousin Stephanie, a student at York College, would call Duval, keeping her abreast of what was happening.

"She told me that her mother couldn't take another day off of work," said Duval later. "It's crazy. You have a job and you also have to be a community activist as a job to get what you want."

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

Duval wrote a letter to the assistant principal of Clara Barton High School, which has a Haitian Creole bilingual program. "Ralph is being referred to you, hoping that Clara Barton can welcome him to the New York City public schools and address his academic needs," she wrote. And she accompanied Michelle and Ralph Antony to the school and waited to see the principal.

Finally, said Duval, the principal, Dr. Richard Foreman, accepted Ralph Antony into the school's Haitian Creole bilingual program.

"It was a match," says Foreman. "He was very personable young man. I'm a parent of a high-school student. I want my students to be treated the same way as my daughter." (Clara Barton, incidentally, is severely overcrowded. It has 2,200 students in a building built for 1,800.)

Is the relay race that the Xavier-Louissant family had to run typical? Deycy Avitia of the New York Immigration Coalition says yes. "We know that there are dozens of schools that don't have any kind of program for English-language learners at all."

Bilingual programs are those in which students take ESL to learn English as well as having their other content-area classes like math, science, and social studies taught by a bilingual teacher who can move from their native language to English to ease the transition. ESL schools are those in which students, usually from a variety of countries and with many different languages of origin, learn English either in a self-contained class or in something called a "pull-out" (in which they are taken out of class for a period to learn English) or a "push-in" (in which ESL teachers come into the regular class to help ELLs). It's only the big schools, which generally have larger concentrations of students with one language background, that have bilingual programs—which is why the number of these schools is decreasing, as large schools are increasingly being closed. But the bigger question is not whether bilingual programs work better than ESL programs, but whether immigrant students are being served at all.

"As we are moving into a trend of more small schools," Avitia says, "we're seeing that there's no place for [ELLs]." In their joint 2006 report, "So Many Schools, So Few Options," the New York Immigration Coalition and Advocates for Children of New York found that "out of the 183 small schools we analyzed, more than half (93) had less than 5% of ELLs in their student body."

Which means, according to Avitia, "we only have one or two [ELL] students and we meet with them 15 minutes before school starts. We don't have any other services for them." Regarding Ralph Antony, Melody Meyer, a spokesperson for the city's Department of Education, says, "What you're describing shouldn't happen." She goes on to say, "I'm not going to speculate where the error occurred. If a school is sent a student from the enrollment center, the school should take him or her."

Meyer points out that although the new small schools that have been open only one to two years have a 6.8 percentage of ELL students, schools that have been open three years or more have 9.4 percent, close to the 9.7 percent of schools citywide. "If you look at the bulk of the new small schools, they are not as below average as portrayed, but closer to the citywide average after the first few years," she says.

But figures from the Department of Education's own website show that the schools Antony tried to attend had very low figures: the School for Human Rights (5 percent), and the Brooklyn School for Music & Theatre (1 percent). The Erasmus schools also had low percentages: the High School for Service & Learning (about 3.5 percent) and the High School for Youth and Community Development (6 percent). (Most of these figures are from the 2005-6 school year.)

Advocates like Avitia say that the city's new small schools have gotten a pass on servicing both ELLs and special-education students by arguing that the difficulties in starting a new school are such that they need two years before they can begin to integrate those students. In response to the civil-rights suit and wide criticism, the Department of Education offered 10 small schools an extra $30,000 if they put together a program serving ELLs and special-education students. Only seven schools applied for the grant, which would only pay for half a teacher.

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