Should Immigrant Kids Whose Second Language is English Have Extra Time to Finish High School?

winne web

Winnie, a student at Manhattan International high school in New York City. (Photo: Ramaa Reddy Raghavan)

Alan Krull, principal of Manhattan International High School, sits in front of his office computer screen examining the labyrinth of the New York City’s Department of Education website. He is perusing the names of 40 peer schools that Manhattan International is compared to in its 2009-2010 progress report.

“Why are these my peer schools?” asks Krull, baffled.  “There is no other international school in my peer group.”

Like all New York high schools, Manhattan International is under pressure to shepherd its students through the system so they graduate in four years. But Manhattan International faces a huge challenge in meeting this goal.  The school’s  student body is made up entirely of recently-arrived immigrants.  Many of these kids – from 60 countries, and speaking 41 different languages – have a difficult time learning enough English in four years to pass the English Regents Exam, a requirement for graduation in New York.

A school’s graduation rate is one of the major factors determining its overall grade. The current regulation specifies that students graduate in four years and before their 21st birthday. And while the city allows some leeway in meeting this requirement, the state does not, and it can take punitive action against schools that don’t meet state standards.

Krull walks over to another table and picks up a stack of sheets containing each peer school’s demographic and accountability snapshot and starts rattling off statistics about the population of students whose first language is not English.

“This schools has 55 English Language Learners (L’s), this one has 12, and this has only two, this one has 52 and this one has zero,” says Krull, astonished. “We have over 240 L’s and there are only five or six schools here that have the same number of L’s as us.”

Each school’s graduation rate is announced annually in a report card issued by city and state agencies. Matthew Mittenthal, spokesperson for the city’s DOE, through email said the city report awards additional credit to schools when they graduate L’s in four or five years.

But New York State’s report card does not made any concessions to English Language Learners. The state only reports a school’s four-year graduation rate.  If a school does not improve its grade, it is put on a list beginning with a ‘School in Need of Improvement’ and later on a ‘Corrective School’ list, and can eventually be closed down.

Schools on this track are given additional resources to help, but  this does not erase the tension surrounding graduation rates. Many high school principals who deal with large immigrant and international populations, have in the past few years become overly anxious because of their English Language Learners.  According to the New York State Report Card of 2009-2010, the four year graduation rate for students with limited English proficiency was 50 percent. The state wants all schools to progress towards achieving an 80 percent graduation rate.

It’s as if schools like Manhattan International are penalized by their very nature:  they only admit students with limited knowledge of English, as reported on a test given to immigrant and international students whose first language is not English. Students proficient on the test – known as NYSESLAT or New York State English as a Second Language Achievement Test – are sent to other schools.

Krull would like the state to extend the graduation requirement for schools like his from four to five years, allowing more time to teach students English.

“Research has shown that it takes about five to seven years to acquire academic English language skills,” says Krull. “Our four year graduation rate is 60 percent and five years is 83 percent. It’s a big jump.”

This sentiment is shared by Barbara Hruska, assistant professor of language and education at Teachers College, Columbia University

“It’s unreasonable to expect an immigrant student in four years to accomplish twelve years of education,” said Hruska. Some students come to the U.S. academically ahead of U.S. students—others have hardly gone to school at all.  “Because these students haven’t had previous education, a lot of them drop out,” she said.

So far Manhattan International has let students graduate after between four to six years. If a student cannot cope with the rigors of school, they are counseled to transfer to other schools or to get their GED certificate (General Education Development).

Martha Polin, principal of the Lower East Side Preparatory High School (LESP), a transfer school, deals with similar issues. Approximately 91 percent of the students at LESP are immigrants from China and 87 percent of the students are L’s. The student body is older than average, and she is under the gun to graduate them by the time they turn 21. LESP’s four year graduation rate is 51 percent.

“I have a disadvantage of having kids when they are 17 or 18 when they arrive,” says Polin. “We have the kids only for two to three years, and they have to make 30 credits in a short time. One needs time to study English and one can’t learn it fast enough to pass the English Regents. I think kids would be more successful in college and a career if they had more time in high school to learn academic English.”

Listen to Martha Polin speaking with Ramaa Reddy Raghavan about graduation rates for English Language Learners:

[audio: RR_marthapolin_edit2_ramaascuts.mp3]

A few years ago, Polin with the help of Rosa Pietanza, Master Teacher of Teaching and Learning at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Education, assembled a group of like minded principals struggling with similar problems educating L’s.

“There is broad agreement among the principals for students to take the English Proficiency Exam instead of the NY State English Language Arts Regents,” says Polin. “The DOE, is certainly aware of my concerns but says it’s a state regulation. I don’t really see an advocate out there right now.”

Jane Briggs, spokesperson for the New York State DOE and Board of Regents, through email responded to these concerns.

“The Board of Regents has begun to consider changes to New York’s graduation requirements – options that include raising the required passing scores on the English and math Regents exam…allowing greater flexibility in meeting graduation requirements and allowing alternative and supplemental credentials,” said Briggs.

“Because the Regents have just begun discussing possible changes to the graduation requirements, I can’t possibly comment on the specific actions they may take.”

To better prepare students for college, the Board of Regents in 2008 raised the passing grade on the English Regents Exam to 65 percent from the previous passing grade of 55 to 64 percent. But this higher passing grade poses additional challenges for principals like Krull and Polin.

“I don’t think it’s realistic,” said Krull. “Some kids are not college material and not every kid has to be college ready. I believe high schools should give students the knowledge and skills and leave the decision of college to kids. For some of our kids it’s too lofty a goal, especially the way the economy is now, kids are needed at home to work.

Krull may come across as overly anxious, but he has cause to be concerned as Manhattan International was placed on one of New York State’s punitive lists a couple of years ago. He says it was either for not making the Regent scores or the graduation rate.

“We have been clean for quite a while but we never know,” said Krull. “It takes one kid not to graduate, to have a meltdown.”

“Once you make your graduation rate, you are made accountable and you have to keep making your graduation rate,” noted Polin. “It’s very difficult depending on who your students are and how much English they know. I don’t see what the difference is if a kid takes three or four years to finish high school.”

“I want to do the best job possible,” said Polin. “But No Child Left Behind, the State’s new teacher accountability standards and testing is taking the focus away from the real education of the students. I am hoping the pendulum shifts back a little bit the other way so we can do the job we are supposed to do, which is educate kids.”

Ramaa Reddy Raghavan is a Feet in Two Worlds education reporting fellow.  Her work, and the work of other Fi2W fellows, is supported by the New York Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation with additional support from the Mertz Gilmore Foundation.


AboutRamaa Reddy Raghavan
Ramaa Reddy Raghavan is a freelance journalist who enjoys working in a multimedia landscape that fuses print, audio, video and photography. She is a graduate of Columbia’s Broadcast School of Journalism and can be reached at