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.

Building bonds

‘Trust is being built’ as foundation invests in programs to support Detroit parents and students

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor
Teacher Michele Pizzo and students Wajiha Begum, Iftiker Choudhury and Demetrious Yancy are closer since she's visited their homes


Anna Hightower didn’t know what to think when her daughter, Jasmine, wanted permission to invite her teachers to visit their home in October. But she pushed past her reluctance and nervousness, baked brownie cookies and opened her doors to two teachers from the Davison Elementary-Middle School.

She discovered a new world of information on being a better parent as a participant in the Detroit main district’s new initiative to empower parents, the Parent Teacher Home Visit Program.

It’s part of a sweeping initiative led by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, which announced a three-year, $3 million grant Wednesday with the Detroit Public Schools Foundation. The initiative also includes a parent academy which will serve 7,000 parents, and a summer camp for up to 900 pre-kindergartners starting in the fall.

It’s the first grant Kellogg has awarded as part of its $25 million commitment to a major initiative called Hope Starts Here that Kellogg, along with the Kresge Foundation, announced last fall. The two foundations plan to spend $50 million to improve the lives of the city’s youngest children. (Kresge and Kellogg also support Chalkbeat).

Hightower said she believes the home visits are helping set the direction for her daughter’s life.

“I see now that DPS is not just a school for my daughter, but also a GPS,” she said.  “They see where my daughter wants to be, they know the destination and give her the opportunity to see the different routes she can go. They encouraged me as a parent to foster her growth as well.”

By the time the first home visit was over, the new relationships got 12-year-old Jasmine planning to join the school math club, apply to attend Cass Technical High School and consider her college choices.

La June Montgomery Tabron, W.K. Kellogg Foundation President and CEO, helped design the initiative to help the city’s youngest citizens, but Wednesday was the first day she met program participants.

“It just brought tears to my eyes,” she said. “It’s real, it’s practical. These aren’t easy relationships to build, but they are being built and trust is being built.”

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said rebuilding the district must include making parents stronger advocates for their children’s education.

“Every parent cares about their child’s education,” he said. “The reality, though, is a lot of our parents don’t know how to navigate the system in order to advocate for their child every day. Some of our parents are intimidated by the system. Sometimes, parents are not welcomed by schools, principals and even teachers, and sometimes district staff.”

Parents, he said, also often are carrying heavy loads, working multiple jobs, and struggling to pay bills. While they’re navigating everything, they are challenged to put their children and their  schooling first.

He said he envisions a “critical mass of parents” in every school who will hold the district accountable for its performance: They will demand certified teachers. They will understand how to help their child get a higher SAT test score, complete a financial aid application and help their children become better readers.

“All of this, I probably would say, is part of the greatest reflection of what I want us to be as a district,” he said.

Parents will be able to take classes on topics such as resume writing, scholarships, and college placements tests. The Parent Academy training will be held in schools, libraries, community centers and places of worship across the city.  

Michele Pizzo, a seventh-grade English language arts teacher at Davison, said volunteering to visit homes has become personal for her.

She’s gained weight eating four- and five-course meals of samosas, biryani rice and rich desserts prepared by families in the school with a majority Bengali student population. She’s made new friends while visiting with her students’ parents, and she better understands her students and feels she knows them better.

Since the fall, when the program was in its pilot stage, she has visited 30 parents after school and on weekends — all in homes except one.

“We try to make the parents feel as comfortable as possible. We walk in, give them a hug, kissing on both cheeks, and there’s a huge meal that takes place,” she said.  “They are able to open up to us, and even if they couldn’t speak English, their child translated for us.”

For seventh-grader Iftiker Choudhury the home visits have made him and his family closer to his teacher.

“I get along with the teacher more, and it’s like very friendly now,” he said. “I’m comfortable now and I talk to her more. My parents knowing her, it creates a bond in all of us.”

Every Student Succeeds Act

The Indiana State Board of Education is hitting the brakes on a plan to overhaul A-F school grades

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Students in IPS School 91's multi-age first-, second- and third-grade classroom work on math activities.

The Indiana State Board of Education is pressing pause on a proposed overhaul of how schools are graded that drew criticism from educators and some education advocates.

Board members said they wanted more time to consider how the A-F proposal — initially created to address new federal accountability law — would work alongside new graduation requirements and to incorporate feedback from educators about how the school grades are calculated, especially for high schools.

That means for this year, the 2018-19 school year, and possibly longer, Indiana schools will be measured according to two different yardsticks — a state model introduced in 2016 and a federal system that complies with the new Every Student Succeeds Act.

Read: Indiana has a curious plan to sidestep federal rules — give schools two A-F grades next year

The board met Wednesday to continue hammering out the new process for calculating state grades, a draft of which was approved in January. But just as the meeting started, board member Byron Ernest suggested pausing process, aiming instead for a new A-F grading model for the 2019-20 school year at the earliest.

“I would like for us to take a step back and do some research,” Ernest said. Four of the state board members were absent, including state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick. The seven present board members quickly reached a consensus that they should postpone a decision on the A-F rules, though no official vote happened.

As it stands now, the state and federal grading methods for calculating school ratings have important differences. The federal grade calculation, for example, would include school attendance rates and language proficiency of English-learners, whereas the state calculation would mainly rely on state test scores and test score growth. Because Indiana’s calculation also excludes certain students that the federal plan includes, such as those receiving credit recovery services, the final ratings could differ significantly for the same school. Although state and federal accountability metrics have differed in the past, the differences going forward would be more significant.

The differences ultimately add a lot of confusion to a state accountability system designed to be simpler to understand for teachers, parents, and the community.

Cari Whicker, a board member and principal, said the changes Indiana has made to testing and accountability have been exhausting and frustrating for schools.

“Either A-F accountability or testing has changed every year since 2011,” Whicker said. “That’s a lot for schools. What you consider tweaking is truly moving the target for people in the field.”

The pause is also an about-face from a meeting just a couple months ago, where board members shot down a similar proposal from Gordon Hendry to slow down. On Wednesday, Hendry said he was glad to hear Ernest’s proposal.

“That’s what I advocated for in January — wouldn’t it behoove us to take our time,” Hendry said.

In January, educators and education advocates came forward with concerns over the process for creating the new school grades, which they said was far too fast and not transparent. They also took issue with the substance of the state plan, which would have made test scores more important and limited how much test score improvement could have factored into high school grades.

It’s not yet clear exactly what changes the board wants to make in the state A-F grading model that haven’t already been discussed or considered. The Indiana Department of Education released its federal ESSA plan over the summer, and the board has had multiple opportunities to examine that plan and give feedback.

Further discussion is expected at the state board’s April meeting.