A New Challenge

For unaccompanied minors, the school year begins with uncertainty

PHOTO: Tasked Angel

Claire Sylvan first saw hints about how her New York City schools were about to change at a school more than 3,000 miles away.

Late last school year, she saw an uptick of unaccompanied minors enrolling at one of the west-coast schools in her Internationals Network for Public Schools. Then she began to see a higher number than usual in New York, where 15 of her network’s schools focus on serving immigrant students.

Of the flood of young migrants fleeing gang violence and extreme poverty in Central America — almost 40,000 came across the Mexican border between January and July, according to the Office of Refugee Settlement — more than 1,300 have ended up in New York City. As they wait for deportation hearings, the students, many with gaps in their formal education and suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, are presenting a significant new challenge for city schools.

“They are going to be concentrated there, at schools,” Sylvan said, noting that the city is now tasked with figuring out how to provide those students with legal services, counseling, help learning English, and in some cases, literacy in any language. “How are you going to use the school as a hub for the services they are going to need?”

Brooklyn and the Bronx have received 362 and 347 students, respectively, and Manhattan has received 54 students. Queens has gotten the lion’s share of the children, with 578.

All have arrived in the U.S. alone or with other minors, and have been placed with family members, sponsors, or other care in the city. (Children as young as five years old have traveled with a one-year-old sibling, said one advocate with the New York Immigration Coalition. “It’s astounding.”)

The needs of many of these students are acute. At Flushing International High School in Queens, the staff began to prepare for the newest influx with a professional development session last week that covered how to identify symptoms of post-traumatic stress.

“We talked about the different ways trauma can show up in the classroom,” said Tania Romero, a social worker at Flushing, a school with experience enrolling unaccompanied minors, including those from conflict zones in Bosnia and parts of Africa. Staff members are on the lookout for students who might be quiet and depressed, or those who might act out with violence.

Some students may have experienced sexual trauma on their journey across the border, or may have spent weeks in the desert without much food or water, Romero said. Now, they also face uncertainty about whether they can stay in the U.S. or will be sent back to the place they fled.

But staff members are focused on understanding the symptoms of that trauma and some of what is happening in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. “Once you have that better understanding, you are more equipped to help those students,” Romero said.

In some ways, the city school system is well positioned to accommodate these students. About 14 percent of city students are English language learners, and nearly half of those were born outside the U.S.

Still, the new wave presents a bureaucratic challenge, since many will have no educational  records, said Margie McHugh, director of the National Center on Immigrant Integration Policy at the Migration Policy Institute.

And it’s still unclear how well districts and teachers nationwide will be able to meet the needs of these students, whose literacy levels — and socio-emotional needs — should be assessed when they enter their schools.

“Obviously, there’s a lot of rough edges to this right now,” she said.

The city has signaled that it is taking some steps to meet those needs. The newly appointed head of the office of English language learners, Milady Baez, will focus in part on monitoring the needs of these minors, the department said in a statement. The education department is also part of an interagency task force looking at their needs, though city officials from the mayor’s office and the education department declined to say what that group was working on. Sylvan also said she had spoken with Chancellor Carmen Fariña about sharing ideas from the Internationals network with the rest of the department.

Meanwhile, schools are continuing to see an influx of these high-need students.

“At a network level, we are certain we have well over 150 kids,” said Sylvan, citing a figure that includes children who arrived toward the end of last school year. “It goes up daily.”

Emma Sokoloff-Rubin contributed reporting.

father knows best

How a brush with death convinced one dad to get his diploma, with a boost from the Fatherhood Academy

PHOTO: Courtesy of Steven Robles
Steven Robles with his family

Steven Robles thought he might not live to see his daughter’s birth.

In May 2016, the 20-year-old was in the hospital after being shot during what he described as an argument in his neighborhood.

A year later, Robles just graduated from City University of New York’s Fatherhood Academy. He passed his high school equivalency exam and is happily celebrating his daughter Avare’s 8-month birthday.

“That conflict is what got me into the program, and what happened to me before she was born motivated me to stay in the program,” Robles said. “It motivated me to manage to pass my GED.”

Robles grew up in Brownsville, Brooklyn and attended Franklin K. Lane High School. Though he liked his teachers, Robles said other students at the school were not “mature enough,” and the disorderly school environment made it hard for him to concentrate.

A quiet student, Robles said teachers would often overlook his presence in the classroom. Between that and friction with other classmates, Robles lost interest in school.

“My parents didn’t try to help me, either,” Robles said. “Nobody really tried to help me with that school, so I just stopped going.”

It was a whole different experience for him once he arrived at the Fatherhood Academy at LaGuardia Community College, a program run by CUNY for unemployed and underemployed fathers ages 18 through 28. The Academy, now partnering with the New York City Housing Authority at its LaGuardia location, was launched in 2012 and also has programs at Hostos and Kingsborough Community Colleges.

“I have interviewed many of the men who come into the program and I often ask the question, ‘What brought you here?'” said Raheem Brooks, program manager of the Fatherhood Academy at LaGuardia Community College. “Mostly every young man says, ‘I’m here because I want to create a better life for my child than I had.’ So, I think the main theme of the program is that we help promote intergenerational change.”

At the LaGuardia branch, 30 students attend classes three times a week over the course of 16 weeks. Subjects include mathematics, social studies, and writing for students seeking to get their high school equivalency diplomas. Students also attend workshops run by counselors who guide them in professional development and parenting.

Robles found out about the program after seeing a flier for it in his social worker’s office at Graham Windham, a family support services organization. Curious to see what the Academy offered, he called to find out more and officially enrolled after passing a test to prove he could read above seventh-grade level.

“Before the Academy, I was not really into school at all,” Robles said. “But when I got there, it just changed my life. In this program, I didn’t know anybody there, there were no distractions. It made me more focused, and I just really wanted to get my GED and education.”

What helped Robles the most was getting to learn from the other fathers in the class, who were going through similar experiences as him.

“Little things I didn’t know, I learned from them because they were also fathers,” Robles said. “I just liked the way they were teaching us.”

In fact, he liked the Academy so much, he doesn’t plan to leave. He is applying to study criminal justice at LaGuardia Community College and to become a mentor for the Academy next year.

Currently, Robles lives with his grandparents, his daughter and the mother of his child. Getting a place for his family is next on his to-do list, he said.

“Avare always has a smile on her face and always puts a smile on my face,” Robles said. “She motivates me to get up and do what I have to do. Anything I could do for her, I will.”

Though school did not play a huge role in his life growing up, that is not what Robles wants for his daughter. He said after participating in the Academy, he wants to make sure Avare stays motivated and in school.

“I hear a lot from people about how they think they can’t do it,” Robles said. “I almost lost my life before my daughter was born and that motivated me. If I could do it, you could do it.”

Behind the brawl

Three things to know about the Tennessee school behind this week’s graduation brawl

PHOTO: Arlington Community Schools
Arlington High School is a 2,000-plus-student school in suburban Shelby County in southwest Tennessee.

Arlington High School is considered the crown jewel of a 3-year-old district in suburban Shelby County, even as its school community deals with the unwelcome attention of several viral videos showing a fight that broke out among adults attending its graduation ceremony.

The brawl, which reportedly began with a dispute over saved seats, detracted from Tuesday’s pomp and circumstance and the more than $30 million in scholarships earned by the school’s Class of 2017. No students were involved.

“It was unfortunate that a couple of adults in the audience exhibited the behavior they did prior to the ceremony beginning and thus has caused a distraction from the celebration of our students’ accomplishments,” Arlington Community Schools Superintendent Tammy Mason said in a statement.

Here are three things to know about the 13-year-old school in northwest Shelby County.

With more than 2,000 students, Arlington is one of the largest high schools in Shelby County and is part of a relatively new district.

It’s the pride of a suburban municipality that is one of six that seceded from Shelby County Schools in 2014 following the merger of the city and county districts the year before. (School district secessions are a national trend, usually of predominantly white communities leaving predominantly black urban school systems.) More than 70 percent of Arlington’s students are white, and 6 percent are considered economically disadvantaged — in stark contrast to the Memphis district where less than 8 percent are white, and almost 60 percent are considered economically disadvantaged.

The school’s graduation rate is high … and climbing.

Last year, after adding interventions for struggling students, the school’s graduation rate jumped a full point to more than 96 percent. Its students taking the ACT college entrance exam scored an average composite of 22.5 out of a possible 36, higher than the state average of 19.9. But only a fifth scored proficient or advanced in math and a third in English language arts during 2015-16, the last school year for which scores are available and a transition year for Tennessee under a new test.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visits with students at Arlington High School during a 2016 tour.

The school was in the news last August when Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visited its campus.

The commissioner spoke with students there to kick off her statewide listening tour that’s focused on ways to get students ready for college and career. McQueen highlighted the school’s extracurricular activities and students’  opportunities to intern for or shadow local professionals. She also complimented Arlington for having an engaged education community.