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.

Future of Schools

How this Indiana district realized counselors weren’t spending enough time counseling

PHOTO: Denver Post file

About a year ago, the counselors in the Beech Grove school district made a discovery: They were spending less than half of their time on counseling.

Instead of meeting with students one-on-one or in small groups, they were spending most of their days on routine tasks, such as overseeing lunch, proctoring exams, and filling in for secretaries.

When they realized how much time those other tasks were taking away from counseling work, it was “an eye-opener for everyone,” said Paige Anderson, the district college and career coordinator.

The counselors began tracking their time as part of a planning grant from the Lilly Endowment, a prominent Indianapolis-based philanthropy. In 2016, the foundation launched Comprehensive Counseling Initiative for Indiana K-12 Students, a $49 million effort to improve counseling in Indiana. Experts say meaningful counseling can help schools support students as they navigate problems both at home and in the classroom. (The Lilly Endowment also supports Chalkbeat. Learn more about our funding here.)

What Beech Grove staff members learned during their planning process is already changing their approach to counseling, said Trudi Wolfe, a counselor at Central Elementary School, who was instrumental in applying for the Lilly grants. Now, administrators are taking on more tasks like proctoring tests. And one intermediate school hired a new counselor.

“The schools will take counselors and meet the needs of the school,” Wolfe said. “Part of the process is helping administrators understand, school counselors need to be doing school counseling.”

Last month, the endowment announced its second round of implementation grants, which awarded about $12.2 million to 39 schools and districts. Beech Grove will receive $259,727 to redesign its counseling program to focus on the social and emotional needs of students, with the largest chunk of that money going to staff training.

The aim is to develop a strategy for handling the trauma that students face at home, said Wolfe. Over the past 10 years, the number of students in the district who are poor enough to get subsidized meals has risen by about 25 percentage points to 72 percent of students.

Beech Grove has also been affected by the opioid crisis, said Wolfe. “We have kids living with parents who are dependent on drugs, and they are not meeting the needs of their children.”

Those growing challenges mean that it is essential for counselors to have a plan for helping students instead of just meeting the needs of each day, Wolfe said.

Counseling is an investment that can have long-term benefits. After Colorado began an initiative to hire more school counselors, participating schools had higher graduation rates, increased enrollment in career-and-technical programs, and more students taking college-level courses. A 2016 report found that by keeping students from dropping out, the Colorado program saved taxpayers more than $319 million.

But in Indiana schools, counselors often have large caseloads. In 2014-2015, Indiana had an average of 543 students per counselor, above the national average and significantly higher than the American School Counselor Association recommendation of no more than 250 students per counselor.

Hiring more counselors alone is not enough to create stronger school counseling programs, said Tim Poynton, an associate professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston who studies counseling. They also have to spend their time on meaningful counseling work.

“You need more school counselors. That’s necessary, but it’s also not sufficient,” said Poynton. “If you hire more school counselors, and you have them doing lunch duty and things that basically you don’t need a master’s degree in school counseling to do, then you’re not going to see those important metrics move.”

When schools were applying for the Lilly Endowment grants, many reported that counselors were focused on urgent social and emotional challenges and struggled to help students plan for the future, according to the endowment.

Those challenges can have ripple effects, making it harder for school staff to tackle long-term goals such as ensuring that students sign up and meet the requirements for the state’s scholarship program, 21st Century Scholars.

If counseling is done well, most students will be prepared to go to college, even if they do not seem interested when they are in high school, Poynton said. But when counselors are dealing with urgent problems, they have significantly less time to devote to college preparation, he said.

“In urban schools, school counselors are often focused on getting students to school and meeting their immediate needs,” Poynton said. “In the higher-performing suburban schools, where the students and families don’t have those same kind of issues or concerns, the emphasis is almost entirely on the college-going process.”

In a statement from the endowment, Vice President for Education Sara B. Cobb said the response to the Lilly grants shows increased awareness of the crucial need for counseling programs.

“We are impressed with how school leaders have engaged a wide variety of community partners to assess the academic, college, career and social and emotional needs of their students, and respond to them,” Cobb said.

The Lilly grants are going to a broad array of schools, and they are using the money in different ways. At Damar Charter Academy, which educates students with special needs, few students earn traditional diplomas or have good options for higher education. That’s why school staff plan to use the $100,000 counseling grant they received to build relationships with employers and create training programs for skills such as small engine repair, automotive maintenance, landscaping, and culinary arts, said Julie Gurulé, director of student services.

“If we can commit to getting them the skills they need while they are with us,” she said, “they will be able to go out and gain meaningful employment, and … lead the kind of lives that we all want to.”

These are the districts and schools in Marion County that received counseling grants. (Find the full list here.)

  • Beech Grove City Schools $259,727
  • Damar Charter School $100,000
  • Metropolitan School District of Decatur Township $671,300
  • Purdue Polytechnic Indianapolis High School $100,000

Delayed decision

Officials promised to update a Giuliani-era agreement between the NYPD and city schools almost a year ago. So where is it?

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
A school safety agent at Staten Island's New Dorp High School.

Last October, city officials said they were on the cusp of announcing changes in the way the New York Police Department interacts with schools — an overhaul that began more than three years ago and sparked months of negotiations with advocacy groups.

But nearly 10 months later, the city has not announced any revisions to the “memorandum of understanding” that governs police involvement with school security, leaving in place a nearly two-decade-old agreement that has not been altered since Rudy Giuliani was mayor and “zero tolerance” discipline policies were in vogue.

Now, police and education officials say revisions won’t be made public until this fall. That timeline has infuriated advocates who said they made progress with senior city officials but have recently been kept in the dark and fear their recommendations are being ignored.

“Here we are three years later without any explanation from the administration,” said Kesi Foster, an organizer with Make the Road New York and the Urban Youth Collaborative who serves on a mayoral task force charged with revising the agreement. “It’s extremely frustrating and disheartening.”

As Mayor Bill de Blasio has worked to overhaul school discipline policies, which have reduced suspensions and student arrests, advocates say the outdated MOU has become a roadblock.

The 1998 agreement officially gives the city’s police department authority over school safety agents, a force that rivals Houston’s entire police department in size. The agreement was controversial at the time, with some city officials saying the presence of police officials made student misbehavior more likely to end in arrests.

Mark Cannizzaro, head of the city’s principals union who was a school administrator in the 1990s, said it was not unheard of for principals to consider calling the police for incidents as minor as shoving. “There was, at one point, a zero tolerance approach that didn’t make sense,” he said.

The current memorandum is a reflection of that era, advocates say, and is one of the reasons students of color are disproportionately likely to wind up in the criminal justice system instead of the principal’s office. It was supposed to be updated every four years, but has still never been revised.

De Blasio seemed to agree that the memorandum needed to be reformed, and convened a group of advocates and senior city officials who recommended changes. Among the group’s recommendations, released in 2016, were giving school leaders the lead role in addressing student misbehavior, making it more difficult for school safety agents to place students in handcuffs, and ensuring students are informed of their rights before they’re questioned.

Johanna Miller, the advocacy director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said senior officials — including Mark Rampersant, the education department’s director of security, and Brian Conroy, the chief of the police department’s school safety division — participated in the task force and seemed receptive to changes. The group agreed there should be limits to the type of offenses that could trigger police involvement, multiple participants said, excluding offenses such as smoking cigarettes, cutting class, and certain instances of insubordination.

But when the city presented the group with a draft agreement, many of their recommendations had vanished, according to people who were present during the meetings, some of whom requested anonymity because the city required that participants sign nondisclosure agreements.

“They basically eliminated all of the major changes that we made,” Miller said, adding that the group requested another opportunity to change the agreement more than a year ago. “And that was the last we heard of it.”

City officials would not comment on why the process has been delayed or why key recommendations never made it into the draft agreement. Some task force members said they believed education and police department lawyers, who had not participated in the group’s discussions, played a role in stripping the draft agreement of the most important changes.

An education department spokeswoman acknowledged in an email that “agency lawyers have been involved in order to ensure the MOU is aligned with existing local, state, and federal laws and in the best interest of students and families,” but did not comment further on why certain changes were not included.

Asked why task force members were required to sign nondisclosure agreements, the official said the decision was made “To protect the confidentiality of any shared student data and remain within (The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act) compliance.”

The task force still meets quarterly, although several of its members say they have not received updates and did not know the city planned to release an updated memorandum this fall.

“The DOE and NYPD have been working in close partnership to finalize updates to the MOU and ensure that the changes are done correctly in the best interest of students and families,” education department spokeswoman Miranda Barbot wrote in an email.

Cannizzaro, the principals union chief, said he has not been informed about potential changes to the agreement, adding that school leaders should have discretion in how misconduct is handled and noted the police play an important role in school safety. “We certainly appreciate their presence — we need their presence,” he said.

Some members of the task force wondered whether the selection of a new schools chief has delayed the process, and at their most recent meeting in May, schools Chancellor Richard Carranza stopped by. “He said something to the extent of, he knew it was an issue and was going to put eyes on it,” said Nancy Ginsburg, a lawyer at the Legal Aid Society and a member of the task force.

Ginsburg said she appreciates that changes take time, but also stressed that the current memorandum can make it difficult to hold officials accountable since the agreement is so vague.

“It’s impossible to hold the agencies to anything if there are no rules,” she said.