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.

Decision day

A state board decision on two long-struggling Pueblo schools could affect the entire district

PHOTO: Andrea Chu/Getty Images

A year after running out of chances to improve on their own, two Pueblo middle schools will be making a return appearance in front of the State Board of Education this week.

Heroes Middle School and Risley International Academy of Innovation have spent the last eight years on a watch list for low-performing schools. A year ago, the state board ordered them along with five school districts and 10 other schools to craft plans to improve — and warned them that too little progress could lead to sharper consequences in the future. It was the first time state regulators faced these decisions under Colorado’s school accountability system.

Many of the schools and districts on the state watchlist have managed to improve enough to avoid further intervention, including Bessemer Elementary, also in Pueblo City Schools.

But even after working with a nonprofit group to improve the quality of teaching, the two schools failed to advance on Colorado’s school rating system, which is largely based on performance on standardized tests. Their test scores left Heroes at the second lowest rating, where it has been for several years, and Risley on “turnaround,” the lowest possible rating, despite some improvement in some subject areas and grade levels.

On Wednesday, state board members will hold a hearing on the future of Heroes and Risley— along with the entire Adams 14 district and its high school. They’ll be taking into account recommendations from independent reviewers who visited the schools, the Pueblo district, students and their families, and advocates who have been lobbying throughout the process.

If the board members take the same approach they did last year, they’re likely to let the schools continue with “innovation” status, with some additional external management. But some state board members have expressed frustration with the pace of change, and they have more drastic options available to them, including closure or turning low-performing schools into charters.

At least in the case of Risley, the recommendation to largely stay the course comes despite grave concerns about the school. The evaluators gave a damning report, rating its leadership “not effective” at implementing change or even having the capacity to benefit from the help of an external partner.

The evaluators described chaotic classrooms in which students slept at their desks or openly played on their phones. In classrooms in which teachers were able to engage students, too many of them were “doing the cognitive work” for the students rather than leading them in real learning, they said.

The school is using too many new programs at once without enough training for teachers, with the result that most of them were not being implemented as intended, the evaluators said, and there isn’t enough coordination. In one example, the school had adopted new reading and math curriculum designed for 90-minute blocks, but the school’s schedule only allows for 75-minute periods.

But closing the school or turning it over to a charter organization would be worse options, evaluators said.

Conversion to a charter school would be divisive and unlikely to better serve students, they said, and there aren’t any nearby schools that could absorb the students if Risley were to close. “There are no other viable options for students that would likely lead to better outcomes,” the evaluators wrote.

What’s more, they wrote, the school serves as an “anchor” to the community — a view that community members expressed in comments submitted to the state board. Parents described using the health clinic associated with the school or getting food from the food pantry, as well as the pride their children felt in their sports teams, which provide positive and structured activities after school.

“As a parent, I feel better after each time I volunteer,” one mother wrote. “My daughter is a cheerleader here and I enjoy going to all her games and support her school and represent red and black and showing bear pride. I am looking forward to my son attending here in years to come.”

In several letters, students said they were having to take so many tests as part of the turnaround process that they were bored and stressed out and did not want to come to school.

“If we’re testing every month, when the real test comes around, we get tired of it and guess or click through,” one eighth-grade student said. “They’re stressing us out, and we don’t really need them. I understand you guys need to see where we are, but this many tests are not helping any of us.”

The state review panel assessment of Heroes was more positive, even as evaluators noted ongoing problems and recommended an additional external partner to help manage the school, not just provide instructional support.

“The school needs more time to see the full benefits of participation in the Innovation Zone, but implementation thus far has proven effective,” they wrote. “Leadership is developing and beginning to create positive change.”

At Heroes, evaluators did not recommend conversion to a charter school in part because the school serves a high population of students with disabilities. The middle school is also part of a K-8 school with one principal, and disentangling the elementary and middle school would have financial implications for both.

In response to written questions from the State Board of Education, Pueblo district officials said converting both schools to charters would have a serious financial impact on the entire school system. The district, which already faces declining enrollment and operates on a four-day week while staring down a $785 million maintenance backlog for its aging buildings, would lose almost $5 million a year in state funding if Risley and Heroes students all went to charter schools. The school district would also lose one of its newer buildings if Risley converted to a charter.

The opposition to a charter conversion is about more than money. In a letter, Barb Clementi, vice president of the school board in Pueblo, pointed to the example of a struggling school that was turned into a magnet school. While it has a good rating, it now serves a student population that is almost entirely different, and the former students continue to struggle in their new schools. Converting Risley or Heroes to charters runs the same risk, she said.

Risley and Heroes are part of an innovation zone that provides schools more flexibility but also allows teachers and administrators to work together. While the state review panel said both schools need to take more advantage of the zone, other Pueblo schools have come off the state watchlist using the innovation approach.

“I urge you to consider the bigger picture of our entire Pueblo community and school system when making decisions,” Clementi wrote. “These two middle school have made progress and deserve the time and opportunity to continue their good work with perhaps additional partnership support.”

Suzanne Ethredge, president of the Pueblo Education Association, the teachers union, said both schools have suffered from a lack of consistent leadership and significant teacher turnover, an issue that evaluators noted as well. She said any plan to improve the schools needs to take seriously the issue not just of training teachers but keeping them.

Some teachers and parents have asked for the schools to be turned into “community schools,” though letters to the state board indicate this approach has some serious skeptics as well.

“There is a lot of buy-in and a lot of people are looking to this model as a way to engage authentically with our community and dig in and find those root causes that are holding students back,” said Robert Donovan, an eighth-grade social studies teacher at Risley and member of the Pueblo Education Coalition.

Community schools incorporate a wide range of services for students and their families, ranging from meals, health clinics, and laundry service to English classes and job training. These schools work to engage parents in their children’s education, and in their most ideal version, parents play a big role in shaping educational decisions.

Teachers unions have been strong advocates for community schools in response to persistent low test scores, including in Pueblo and Adams 14. They argue that community schools address the social and economic problems that make it hard for students to succeed at school. Research on the academic impact of this approach is mixed.

More than 97 percent of Risley students qualify for subsidized lunches, a measure of poverty, compared to 80 percent for the district as a whole. Nearly 80 percent of Heroes students are from low-income families.

“The concerns expressed by our community fall into several areas, including authentic parent and community engagement, culturally relevant curriculum, a focus on high-quality teaching and learning, positive discipline practices, and mental health supports, to name a few,” reads the online petition. “The most powerful voices speaking about what is needed were, in fact, students. Based on this engagement, a community schools model … is the best fit for what we need and want in Pueblo.”

At Wednesday’s hearing, district officials will lay out their plans in more detail — they declined to talk to us before the meeting — and face tough questions from state board members, who have until Thursday to render a decision on the two Pueblo schools and the Adams 14 district, which could face significant loss of control.

This week’s decisions will mark a test of how the state board will deal with struggling schools going forward. Pueblo City Schools and Adams 14 have both described a process for finding additional outside partners if that’s what the state board orders, but it’s not entirely clear what that will look like on the ground.

And then it will fall back to principals, teachers, parents, and students to do the work.

options

Adams 14 board rejects new KIPP charter school in district

Caroline Hiskey, a preschool teacher at KIPP Northeast Elementary in Denver, reviews letters with the help of "Phonics Lion."

KIPP, the national charter school network, will not open a new school in the Adams 14 school district after board members voted against the network’s application Tuesday night.

It was a unanimous decision in which two board members who explained their thinking said the district’s situation with the state weighed heavily on their votes.

“Adams 14 is not in a position right now to be a proper authorizer,” said board member Dominick Moreno, who is also a state senator. “We have our own struggles. To add another school into the mix of responsibilities is tough.”

Board member Bill Hyde said he believes the district’s problems can be solved without resorting to using charter schools.

“It’s not just about this particular charter school application,” Hyde said. “It goes to a bigger issue as to what we as a community want in terms of a school system.”

On Wednesday, district officials will explain their plans for improving student performance to the State Board of Education, whose members have the authority to order external management of the district or more drastic improvement efforts. The district has spent eight years on a watchlist for low-performing schools, and the board’s reluctance to offer a new high-performing charter option for students will likely be part of the discussion with state regulators.

KIPP officials have wanted to expand outside of Denver, following some of their students, a majority of whom come from low-income families. As housing prices rise in Denver, many working class families have moved to more affordable suburbs like Commerce City, where the Adams 14 district is based. This summer, KIPP submitted an application to open a preschool through 12th-grade campus in the district.

The district had to hire a consultant to quickly put together a review process for the application and to educate the board about how charter schools operate in Colorado. Superintendent Javier Abrego then ignored staff advice based on their review, and instead asked the school board to reject the school, citing philosophical concerns with charter schools.

KIPP leaders had the backing of several parents who live in the district and send their children to KIPP schools in Denver, and of other district parents who wanted a new school option nearby. Tensions rose between parents who were in favor and teachers who were opposed.

KIPP officials said they are planning to appeal the decision to the state.

“Families in the community have been advocating for a new public school option for their students, and tonight’s vote is a setback for the families and community members who are fighting to provide an education that is responsive and accountable to their students,” said Kimberlee Sia, CEO of KIPP Colorado Schools. “We plan to appeal this decision, and we will continue our efforts to open a new public school option for Adams 14 families.”

KIPP’s charter school application had been a frequent topic for public comment at board meetings for months. Tuesday, there were fewer people in the room and only two people spoke about KIPP, both asking the board to reject the application. Teachers who are union leaders sat near the front of the room and nodded in approval as the board members made their decision.

Community advocates in the room criticized the decision. Transforming Education Now, a parent advocacy nonprofit that supports school choice, had been working with parents who support KIPP.

“Kids in Adams 14 will suffer yet again because this district has chosen to put adult needs and politics before their learning,” the organization said in a tweet.