It is the second week of school, and Kathleen Sampson has been presenting the same lesson for several days: “Amina is from Somalia. Somalia is in Africa. Da Quan is a boy. Da Quan is from China. China is in Asia.” She builds sentences using facts about the students in the classroom, repeating them over and over.
This is not first grade, but ninth grade at Liberty High School in Manhattan, with immigrants 14 to 17 years old. Unlike the high-performing immigrants who remain a staple of the American education system, these teenagers arrive from all corners of the earth with one thing in common: little or no education. Long neglected, they may have come from cultures that educate boys but not girls, their schooling may have been interrupted by war or the need to work, or their education may simply have been woefully inadequate.
Regular programs in English as a second language often fail to help these students, many of whom cannot read or write in the languages of their homelands.
Immigrant youths with limited literacy have been coming to the United States for centuries, of course. But as they seek their places in an information-based economy with steeply rising academic standards, their plight is now viewed in a very different light. For the first time, cities are collecting data on their numbers, researching their needs and creating programs to teach them first-grade material in a high school context.
“The issue was there all along,” said Pamela Dungy, a program manager in the Fresno Unified School District in California, where 22 percent of its nearly 10,000 foreign-born students had less than three years of education before enrollment. “But now we realize they are really different groups and that we have got to treat them differently.”
These students can be a delicate issue, as Herman Badillo, chairman of the City University of New York, found out last fall. In talking about poorly educated students from the Dominican Republic and Mexico in New York schools, he described them as “pure Indians — Incas and Mayans who are about, you know, five feet tall with straight hair,” and he added that Mexico and Central America had never had “a tradition of education.” Hispanic politicians accused him of an ethnic slur. Mr. Badillo, who was born in Puerto Rico, apologized.
Mr. Badillo’s point was largely lost in the furor. Across the nation, students who are illiterate in their native languages are turning up in classrooms.
Some estimates suggest that as many as 10 to 20 percent of all immigrant students in America arrive with gaps in their schooling. A study for the United States Department of Education in 1992 estimated that 20 percent of the students with limited English in high school and 12 percent of those in middle school had missed two or more years of school before they arrived in America. New York State estimates that immigrants with little or no schooling account for 12 percent of the students with limited English in the state.
New York City has more immigrant students than any other city in the United States, and the number has risen sharply in recent decades. Only now, however, is the city working on its first count of those with limited literacy.
In a classroom on West 18th Street, one of those students, Amina Simba, a dark-eyed 16-year-old in a decorous lace-edged head scarf favored by Muslim women, strains for the teacher’s attention.
“Miss, Miss,” she calls, waving her hand urgently.
Her eagerness belies the brief but arduous educational journey she has taken to get there. Before arriving in New York three years ago from war-shattered Somalia and a Kenyan refugee camp, she had never been to school. In upstate New York, where she first lived, she was dropped into the eighth grade, where she learned little English and failed to master the A B C’s. Now at Liberty High in Manhattan, she is finally coming to terms with English and the alphabet, addition and multiplication, continents and countries.
Amina was placed in the middle level of the literacy program when she arrived in September: her reading and writing were weak, but she could answer simple questions in English, like, “What is your name?” “Where are you from?” “Who do you live with?”
After several months, Amina was still struggling, so she was moved to the beginning literacy class with Ms. Sampson, where she is thriving. In her class, there are also students from Panama, Haiti, Yemen, China, Vietnam and Sierra Leone. Other literacy classes at the school include students from Pakistan, the Dominican Republic, Mali and the former Yugoslavia. Of the school’s 500 students, about one-fifth are in its literacy programs.
Liberty was not set up to run literacy programs, but to offer a one-year transition for immigrant students. But in the early 90’s, teachers at Liberty recognized that a growing number of their students could not keep up because their previous education was weak or nonexistent. Today Liberty runs three literacy programs: one in English, and bilingual programs in Spanish and Chinese.
Although the only grade offered at Liberty is the ninth, nearly two-thirds of its students are 17 or older and one-fifth are 19 or older. Not only do older students have more trouble learning new languages than younger children, but they have less time to make up what they have missed. In addition, those who are illiterate in their native language find it harder to learn another language.
Burt Posner, director of high school bilingual education for the New York City Board of Education, said schools tried to incorporate these students into their regular programs for those who need to learn English as a second language, “but it didn’t work.”
“They had no clue,” he said. “They couldn’t read Spanish or Chinese. We had to create a separate track because the kids couldn’t keep up.”
Mr. Posner said 15 to 20 high schools, including Liberty, now have programs for these students, but in other schools, these immigrants are still mixed with other students.
“If there are not enough students to form a class,” he said, “or there isn’t a teacher who knows how to teach them, you’ve got a real mess.”
Ginger Dokie, a Liberian immigrant who views education as crucial, knows what Mr. Posner means. She said that when her daughter, Kou, who had no education in her war-torn homeland, enrolled in a local middle school in upper Manhattan, she made no progress. Mrs. Dokie demanded more, calling the school and the Board of Education. Eventually, Kou, now 15, ended up at Liberty with her two older brothers.
“They say this is the land of opportunity,” Mrs. Dokie said. “But they forget to tell you that opportunity comes only with education. On the farm in Liberia, whether you have education or not doesn’t matter. Here, it is not good to be a dummy, especially in New York. If you can’t read, you’re going nowhere. I don’t want my children to be lost.”
Even students who say they had 10 years of school before coming to the United States sometimes show very limited reading and writing skills in their native languages.
“If a kid has gone to school for four years in Long Island or Westchester, you’d assume there are certain things he can do,” Ms. Sampson said. “But when one of our students says, ‘I went to school for four years,’ it doesn’t mean the same thing because he may not have had the same rigor or consistency.”
Mahmood Ghaleb, a gregarious 14-year-old who aspires to be an airline pilot or a police officer, said the school he attended for three years in Yemen had one grade and broken windows, and was nothing like school here. “Here I learn lot of things,” he said. “In Yemen I learn nothing.”
In many ways, Ms. Sampson’s classroom at Liberty is like any other high school classroom, with computers on the sides, maps of the world up front and backpacks stowed under the desks.
But there are alphabet letters above the chalkboard — uppercase and lowercase — each with illustrations: lions, rabbits, zebras.
Ms. Sampson begins with the basics, including how to write the letters of the alphabet, what they sound like, how to make simple words, when to use capital letters. She and others reject using primers made for kindergarten or first grade, believing that these are uninteresting to their older students. Instead, the teachers often build their lessons around the students themselves.
In the third week of class, Ms. Sampson unfolded an oversize New York City subway map and talked to the students about the boroughs where they live (the Bronx, Brooklyn and Manhattan), how to pronounce them, and what trains they take to school.
Even in gym, language is emphasized. One morning, students from the literacy program sat in orderly rows on the floor and labeled a skeleton’s bones: heels, shins, jaws, elbows. In later classes, they will learn about equipment and exercises.
“We realized that when our students left us, they were flunking gym in their new schools because they didn’t understand the instructions,” said Bruce Schnur, the principal of Liberty. “Stand up. Sit down. What a whistle means.”
In three or four semesters, some students make rapid progress, mastering some spoken and written English and beginning to use standard textbooks for students their age.
When the students get to the third step in the literacy program, taught by Katie Farrell, the focus is on preparing them to move out of Liberty and survive, like fledglings being pushed out of the nest.
“The goal is to help them make the transition to regular high school, where they will have to deal with big fat American textbooks and with teachers who are not going to cut them a lot of slack for being non-native English speakers and not highly literate,” Ms. Farrell said.
She feeds them coping skills to help them through the long, dense chapters of the world history textbook they are starting: how to preview a chapter, how to think about questions they might want to answer, how to figure out the meanings of unfamiliar words from the context.
The literacy program recently developed relationships with the high schools that take its students. But the new emphasis on the tough state Regents exams is making some schools less receptive; they fear that such students may not be able to pass these required tests and graduate.
It is difficult to find data on what happens to immigrant students when they start out so far behind, and Liberty has not tracked its students in any systematic way. The teachers know that some students drop out after a year or two. Others have enough of a start and enough grit to graduate. And there are the occasional tales of students who make it to — and through — college, like the Ethiopian boy who swam a river to escape the fighting and was captured before he made his way to New York. But they do not expect miracles.
“What we want for them is to be good enough to stand as good a chance as anyone else,” Ms. Sampson said. “If we don’t give them a chance, we are closing doors in their face.”