The Welcome Signs Come In 46 Languages Where Students From All Over Learn To Be Americans

WITH A SEASONED SMILE, Hong Zheng of China sat in the library of Newcomers High School recently and surveyed the members of the class of 2001. Clutching subway maps and new schedules, they shyly recited their homelands.

“Bangladesh,” said the girl in a blue sari, eyes downcast. “Thailand,” said a boy in an oversized down jacket, his hands thrust deep in his pockets. On it went, the halting responses Hong remembers from his own orientation.

“Two years ago, that was me. I was so nervous I was shaking,” recalled Hong, who remembered feeling overwhelmed and barely speaking English during his first few months at the cutting edge public school for new immigrants in Long Island City.

For Hong, Newcomers High has become a bridge between his past as a foreigner and future as an American. These days, he’s an aspiring computer scientist who hopes to attend the State University of New York at Binghamton or Stony Brook next fall. He loves pop diva Celine Dion and the movie “Forrest Gump,” and chats (in English) via e-mail.

At a time when new immigrants are changing the face of New York City and Long Island and placing enormous demands on public school systems, students such as Hong have found a new home in the turn-of-the century building, formerly Long Island City High School. Queens – where half the households are already headed by someone foreign born – seems a fitting laboratory for a school that has been nationally recognized as a model for the future.

Such programs, already found in California, Texas, and Florida, are likely to spread across New York State and the country as the number of immigrants increases, some education experts predict. They are designed to help new arrivals adjust not only to their new home, but to each other.

Long Island’s expanding immigrant population is fueling some talk about a similar program here. Though some educators oppose isolating immigrant students even temporarily, others say the demand is likely to grow as immigrant rolls increase and school standards rise.

“There’s lots of frustration, because it isn’t always easy to fit immigrants into the existing structure,” said Bonnie Marmor, executive director of career education for Nassau BOCES. “For the first time, I’m hearing, ‘Let’s talk about it, let’s address this. “

At Newcomers High, which hosts about 870 students from across Queens, the front entrance posts welcome signs in 46 languages. In the hallways, Spanish phrases such as “Hola,” and “Que Pasa,” are as universal as “Hi.”

“Does anyone speak Arabic?” a teacher asks during the weekly orientation session for new students. A volunteer is located; a question translated.

With the help of intense bilingual instruction and teachers who speak more than 20 languages, the students take the same academic courses and meet the same academic standards as at any city high school. Bilingual programs are offered in Spanish, Chinese, Korean and Bengali.

Students normally spend a year to two at the school before moving on to a conventional high school. Principal Lourdes Burrows said she wants to help students “put their car on the road,” and discover hidden talents.

When they talk about the future, the teenagers share dreams born of pragmatism. They crave college educations, stable professional careers and a home, or even just a bedroom of their own. They want to be far from the impoverished conditions many fled; to become doctors, lawyers, teachers, computer scientists.

Inside the library, senior Halima Umme from Bangladesh giggles with Justina Kaczmarczyk of Poland. She’s teaching her new friend Bengali slang.

“I want to find a good job, with good money,” said Justina, who is interested in photography and hopes to attend Queens or Hunter College next fall.

At Newcomers, both girls learned English with the help of labels that instructors placed everywhere: on hallways, desks and doors. No one laughs at a mispronounced word, said school art teacher and college advisor Anne Kornfeld.

“Here is a place where they feel accepted,” said Kornfeld, who describes the school as equal parts launching pad and a pillar of stability.

Some students begin their day as early as 7 a.m., when teacher Julie Mann offers a sensitivity training class, in which they learn to treat each other with the respect they say they often aren’t shown. Halima, who takes the course, told fellow classmates how she was taunted in the streets when she wore her native costume, and how she had to learn it was OK to make eye contact with her teachers.

Recent college essays the students wrote best illustrate the tussle between past and future, the sorrow they feel at leaving their homelands mixed with the excitement of new prospects.

Mandeep Kaur of India described how doctors in her country are considered “a second authority of God,” and how her American teachers have helped shape her interest in medicine by encouraging her to volunteer at a hospital.

Biling Zheng of China wrote of her first days in the United States, when she was forced to work in a sewing factory more than 10 hours a day to help her family pay their expenses.

“I had to stand to work the whole day,” Biling wrote. “The horrible experience in the factory became an invisible urge for getting my education.”

Mohammed Hassan, a senior from Bangladesh, illustrated his dreams for the future with a proverb from his country.

“If you plant good seed, you will get a good crop,” he wrote. “I think that this is the best way to describe my life because I have been trying to plant a lot of good seeds and now I’m getting good plants.”

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