helping hands

How one Queens high school became a safe haven for children fleeing Central America

PHOTO: Aleksandra Konstantinovic
Principal Carl Manalo's small high school in Queens enrolled more than 100 new Central American immigrants.

Two years ago, then 13-year-old Franklin A. stood on the side of the road in Mexico, staring at the wrecked truck that had been transporting his family. Their truck had crashed and flipped over, six days after they began their flight from the violence in El Salvador, through Guatemala, and then Mexico. Franklin, his mother and siblings escaped unharmed, but without a way to continue their journey.

They had fled their El Salvador home after gang members murdered Franklin’s father. And now, despite the most recent blow, they were determined to push forward, certain that their best chance for safety still lay in the United States. Once they eventually made it to the border by foot and another truck, they were held in a detention center before being sent to New York.

Franklin arrived in Queens in 2014 with an influx of young immigrant children, many of them unaccompanied, escaping violence and danger in their home countries. More than 1,000 of these children have come to Queens since then, all with variations on a similar story — some took planes rather than trucks, a handful already had visas. Many traveled by themselves, but some met up with a parent already living in the U.S. on a visa, whom they might not have seen in years. After crossing the border, they allowed themselves to be apprehended and held in detention centers, primarily in Texas. Those who had relatives in other states were sent to join them to await the court dates that would determine their right to stay.

Franklin, whose last name is being withheld to protect him and his family, was among the first of these immigrants to enroll at the Queens High School for Information, Research and Technology, a small, struggling school with a large and growing percentage of English learners.

The school, known simply as QIRT, would ultimately take in a huge number of new Central American immigrants. In 2013-14, before the influx, the school’s roughly 400 students were approximately 39 percent Hispanic with 14 percent of students in an English Language Learner program. By the start of the 2015 school year, the demographics had shifted: 47 percent of students were Hispanic, and over a quarter of students were in an ELL program. This past school year, there were about 110 Central American immigrants, representing approximately a quarter of the school.

The school became known as a safe space, according to Principal Carl Manalo, and that was part of the draw for young immigrants.

Since Franklin first arrived, the old Far Rockaway High School building that houses QIRT has transformed into a hub aimed at filling the needs of this new immigrant community. The annual coat drive provides winter clothes to the families, who have arrived primarily from tropical climates. A food pantry supplements their groceries. A daycare downstairs, though several decades old, is meant to keep teenage girls who get pregnant — there’s a handful each year — from dropping out.

Adults can take English as a Second Language classes and earn computer certifications alongside the teenagers. There’s personal support as well, as parents flock to Manalo and Spanish teacher Jomarie Figueroa for help navigating the complex, bureaucratic systems of their new country.

Spanish teacher JoMarie Figueroa doubles as an unofficial advisor to the new influx of Central American immigrant children.
PHOTO: Aleksandra Konstantinovic
Spanish teacher Jomarie Figueroa doubles as an unofficial advisor to the new influx of Central American immigrant children.

But for immigrant students, there are also problems the school can’t solve, like the coyotajes who need to be paid off. Figueroa said bribing one of these clandestine guides who transport people over the border has cost her students between $5,000 and $20,000 per person, depending on the length and difficulty of the journey.

One student in her class, speaking with Figueroa as a translator, said his family paid a coyotaje $7,500 for him to travel from El Salvador to the Texas border on his own. The trip stretched to over two months, from April to June, as he ended up detained in a juvenile facility for 30 days once he’d crossed the border. He arrived at his father’s house in Queens on Father’s Day 2014.

To pay the debt once they’re in the United States, students as young as 15 go to work. Many have typical after-school jobs like babysitting or bagging groceries. Still others, Figueroa has learned, work overnight shifts of 8 to 12 hours at businesses that hire them without documentation and pay them in cash.

Manalo is aware that students take these under-the-table jobs because their families need the money. He has heard the names of businesses that hire them without documentation and at depressed wages, but he doesn’t know how to put an end to the practice without endangering his students. Deportation is a real fear among some of these students, as is not being able to pay the rent, or leaving their families back home without cash.

“If they believe their families back home are in danger, how do we convince them not to work?” he said, referring to the threats that follow unpaid debts to the guides and to corrupt officials in their home countries. “How do we help them?”

The majority of these working students still attend classes despite their full-time jobs, Manalo said, at least for a while. But some still see these immediate, cash-upfront jobs, not education, as the key to unburdening their families.

Manalo said an Immigration and Customs Enforcement raid on one of these businesses had some students too scared to come to school, dropping the school’s attendance rates, normally in the high 80s, down to 77 percent. Any white van, any knock on the door, Manalo said, had students too afraid to leave home.

Despite its small size and unimpressive test scores, QIRT draws immigrant families seeking a safe environment. During the last round of immigration raids, Manalo personally went around to classrooms to reassure students that they couldn’t be pulled out of school and arrested without a warrant.

“And a warrant is only if you’ve done something really terrible,” Manalo assured the students.

As a poster image of Steve Jobs looks on, Principal Carl Manalo speaks with a teacher in the hallway of QIRT.
PHOTO: Aleksandra Konstantinovic
As a poster image of Steve Jobs looks on, Principal Carl Manalo speaks with a teacher in the hallway of QIRT.

In a classroom buzzing with Valentine’s Day candy sales, Figueroa questioned if the tiny high school is the right place to handle the influx of immigrants that pushed English Language Learner rates from 14 percent in 2012 to over 26 percent three years later. Only about 55 percent of QIRT students will graduate from high school in four years, and 28 percent will go on to college. The school offers few Advanced Placement classes, although some classes can be taken for State University of New York credit.

When the young immigrants and unaccompanied minors first started enrolling in the school two years ago, there were few teachers who spoke Spanish. That meant that up until this year, the non-English speaking students were all lumped together in one class, Figueroa said, no matter if they were beginning or intermediate learners.

Further complicating the placement of these students is the fact that some arrive with an interrupted education, or no formal education whatsoever. They often can’t be placed in grades solely according to their age given how far behind they are in the material. One student, according to Manalo, who recently arrived in the country and enrolled in the school within a matter of days, will age out of this neighborhood school before he has a chance to graduate — a common problem at QIRT. The new student would do best at a transfer school for older students, but there simply isn’t one in the area.

The school is beginning to adjust to its changing demographics. Starting last year, Regents subjects at the school were co-taught by a subject-area teacher working with an English as a Second Language aide in a kind of dance of strengths that ESL coordinator Jenna Ponomarova says works well. Better, certainly, than teaching multiple classes of immigrant minors on her own, which is what she did in past years.

In one ESL classroom, students sit together in a circle and chatter in Spanish as their teacher quiets them down. Some have only recently arrived in the country. The majority of them miss their homes in El Salvador, Guatemala or the Dominican Republic, but want to stay in the U.S. for the economic opportunities. They’d go home for a visit, perhaps, but they say it’s too dangerous to stay there permanently. One student in the back of the room, however, sitting apart from the group, shakes his head no without looking up: he’d like to go back home.

An ESL classroom at QIRT, where 26.2 percent of students are in an ESL program. The borough of Queens has the highest number of ELL students, at 29.5 percent.
PHOTO: Aleksandra Konstantinovic
An ESL classroom at QIRT, where 26.2 percent of students are in an ESL program. The borough of Queens has the highest number of ELL students, at 29.9 percent.

Valerie Cruz believes she’s lucky. Although she arrived in the United States around the same time as the unaccompanied minors, Cruz traveled with her mother, taking an airplane from El Salvador to New York City, with visas in hand.

Cruz spoke nearly fluent English upon her arrival thanks to private school back home — she now often accompanies other students to the nurse’s office to translate as the school still lacks nurses fluent in Spanish. Her first memory of New York is standing in Times Square for New Year’s Eve, shivering in a sweatshirt and leggings better suited to a winter in El Salvador.

She tested out of the ESL classes, and is part of the school’s model United Nations, as well as a program exploring climate change hosted by the New York Times. She’d like to attend Columbia University in a few years. But she says she’ll need scholarships and, like many of her peers, she expects to also get a job to help her mother and sister.

“I’ll need to work to help pay the rent,” the junior said, with a smile held tight by braces. “It’s just a reality I have to accept.”

As a sophomore at QIRT last year, Franklin, the teen who fled El Salvador after his father’s murder, consistently earned praise from his principal and his teachers for his fluent English and his dedication in class. He’d like to stay in New York City for the time being, and one day, join the Air Force as a pilot.

“It was difficult. I was depressed,” he said about the months after his father’s death. “But here at school, my teachers, they wouldn’t have known it.”

This story originally appeared in School Stories, a publication produced by students at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.

Editor’s Note: This post has been corrected with updated figures on the number of newly arrived immigrant children in Queens.

What's Your Education Story?

Tips for teaching poetry in a women’s prison. ‘Remember, you are not allowed to hug anyone.’

PHOTO: Lwp Kommunikáció, Flickr CC
Inmates at the Indiana Women's Prison.

Adam Henze was one of seven educators who participated in a story slam sponsored by Chalkbeat, Teachers Lounge Indy, WFYI Public Media and the Indianapolis Public Library on Sept. 5. Every teacher shared stories about their challenges and triumphs in Circle City classrooms.

A poet and educator, Henze read a poem about a day in his life as a poetry instructor at the Indiana Women’s Prison. Henze recounts the painful struggle to reconcile his experiences with the crimes for which his students were serving time — some life sentences for murder

It’s a story full of darkness, but it also offers hope that, as Henze said, “we are the sum of the things that we have done, but we’re also the sum of the things that we have yet to do.”

Check out the video below to hear Henze’s story.

You can find more stories from educators, students and parents here.

Future of Schools

IPS students have made their high school choices. Here’s where they want to go.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

High schoolers across Indianapolis Public Schools have made their choices for next year, and some schools are proving far more popular than others.

With all but four high schools set to close, the district is already in the midst of an upheaval. Students’ choices this year could have far-reaching implications for the configuration of the district for years to come.

Shortridge High School had the greatest increase in demand, with more than triple the 400 students enrolled there now listing it as their first choice for next year. George Washington High School, which also enrolls more than 400 students now, is not likely to grow too much. And while Arsenal Technical and Crispus Attucks high schools are both likely to grow by hundreds of students, neither saw interest grow as exponentially as Shortridge.

The final enrollment at each school will determine such critical issues as how many teachers are hired, what courses are available to students, and how much it costs to operate the buildings. Ultimately, students’ choices are likely to shape course offerings over the next several years, district officials said.

The enrollment figures are the result of a district mandate requiring students from across the district to select high schools and magnet programs this fall. More than 90 percent of 8th to 11th grade students have made selections so far. All students will be placed in their top choice program, according to the IPS spokeswoman Carrie Cline Black.

Fewer than 500 IPS students have chosen programs at George Washington so far, according to district data obtained exclusively by Chalkbeat. In contrast, more than 1,300 students have selected Shortridge, which will house the arts magnet program currently at Broad Ripple and the International Baccalaureate Programme. More than 2,300 students have chosen programs at Arsenal Tech (currently the district’s largest high school with 1,826 students) and 1,050 have selected Crispus Attucks (which currently enrolls 695).

The uneven distribution of students did not take  Superintendent Lewis Ferebee’s administration by complete surprise.

At an Indiana State Board of Education meeting on Oct. 4, state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick asked, “What happens if you don’t have a nice, somewhat-even distribution? … What if it’s very out of whack?”

Ferebee said that the district will have room to accommodate students if a school proves especially popular. In the long term, he added, IPS may have to adjust, by replicating  popular programs and discontinuing unpopular ones.

But Ferebee also said the district was hoping to persuade students to take another look at some of the programs that might not be popular at first.

For instance, he said, “We do know it’s going to take some time to educate families on construction and engineering. So we knew out of the gate, not many students may be interested, so it will take some time to build a program.”

Here is a full breakdown of the schools and programs that students chose:

In total 5,142 IPS students chose their preferred programs as part of a broad reconfiguration plan that includes closing nearly half of the seven high school campuses because of low enrollment. The district has not provided projections of how many students would enroll in each high school. But if enrollment doesn’t shift in the coming months, some campuses will be far closer to capacity then others. While the initial deadline for choosing schools and programs has passed, enrollment remains open to any students who have not yet made their selection.

If no other students enrolled in IPS high schools, Shortridge would be nearly 89 percent full. Arsenal Tech and Crispus Attucks would each be over 76 percent full. And George Washington would be about 25 percent full.

At the four remaining high school campuses, the district is aiming to “reinvent” high school by vastly expanding specialized programs in subjects such as business, engineering, and the arts, which students will study alongside their core classwork.

Next year, every student will be enrolled in specialized programs within high schools. District leaders hope that students will choose schools based on their interests, rather than their neighborhood.

Principal Stan Law will take over George Washington next year. In an interview about the school last week, before IPS released student selections numbers, Law said that it was important for students and families to get accurate information so they would select schools based on student career interests rather than neighborhood.

“Everyone has their ideas about things, but only certain people have the accurate information,” he said.

The most popular programs are the health sciences academy at Crispus Attucks and the Career Technology Center at Arsenal Tech, where students can study subjects such as culinary arts, welding and fire rescue. Each attracted more than 900 students. The least popular are the teaching program at Crispus Attucks, chosen by  104 students, and the information technology program at George Washington, chosen by 80.

Despite its apparent unpopularity with IPS students, the information technology program fits in with a state push to prepare students for careers in computer science and related fields. Gov. Eric Holcomb’s legislative agenda calls for requiring high schools to offer computer sciences classes, and the Indiana Chamber of Commerce wants computer science to be a high school graduation requirement.