Volume 20, Number 40 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | September 29 - October 5, 2010
Downtown Express photo by Aline Reynold
Alicia Vasquez (right) with other students at Emma Lazarus watching an instructional video on how to succeed during a job interview.
Chinatown school targets language barriers
BY Aline Reynolds
Call it the school that opens doors to the American dream.
Emma Lazarus is not your typical New York City public high school. It’s a transfer school for under-credited students, and the only one in the city whose curriculum is tailored specifically for English Language Learners. Located on Hester Street in the heart of Chinatown, the school opened in September 2009 to accommodate non-native English speakers who either recently arrived in the U. S. or failed out of other city schools due to language difficulties. To apply, one must be must be 16 to 21 years of age and have attended part of 9th grade, here or overseas.
Though certified by the Department of Education, Emma Lazarus doesn’t have conventional grades.
“Each level is [determined] in terms of skill sets in reading, writing and speaking,” explained Melody Kellogg, the school’s principal. All of the students are immediately enrolled in an English as a Second Language class.
Nearly 20 different languages are represented among Emma Lazarus students, who come from all over the world, with a majority from Asia and South America. The school squeezes five to seven years of English language instruction into three intense years. “You’re bringing kids together that don’t speak the language often, that have very different norms and very different academic backgrounds,” Kellogg said. “There’s a lot of pressure on us to get things right to begin with because our kids are older.”
Nearly 80 percent of the 2009-10 students started out in E.S.L. level one. Though many can hardly hold up a conversation in English when they come to the school, the youths were still required to learn the same course material native English speakers do in other city schools.
According to the principal, teaching this diverse array of students can feel like a daunting task.
“It’s kind of scary… we really have a responsibility to try to do everything we can to support these kids to get there,” Kellogg said.
“Literally, some do not speak English at all when they arrive–they can barely say hello, how are you,” said Pia Raymond, program manager of the school’s Learning to Work internship program. “Earning a Regents diploma upon graduation is not easy to do even for [native English-speaking] high school students, much less students who are coming with different language barriers.”
Emma Lazarus is not a bilingual school — all classes are taught in English.
“The reason some parents choose a program like this is that they want their children to begin practicing English from day one,” Raymond said.
Preparation for college is a high priority and Kellogg and her staff train the students for advanced Regents diplomas, a notch above the standard diploma needed to graduate high school in New York State.
“The goal we have with these kids isn’t just to graduate them and get them out,” she said. “We want them to go to college, and they want to go to college.”
The students must adapt to a different work ethic from what many of them knew in their countries of origin. Kellogg and her staff demand regular attendance and an eight-hour school day, and they encourage students to participate in after-school activities. “We have a lot of kids that’ll come in and say, ‘Miss, I’m working as hard as I can.’ And we’re like, ‘No, you have to work harder.’”
The school, which began with just 30 students last fall, has 210 students this year. Kellogg expects about 25 students to graduate in the spring. “Their language skills have to be high enough before they can sit for [the Regents exam] and pass it,” she said.
With rolling admissions, Emma Lazarus will likely reach its capacity of 250 students by the end of the 2010-11 academic year. It shares two floors of the building at 100 Hester Street with Pace High School and M.S. 131.
Internships, Community Service programs
Seven teenagers from the Dominican Republic gathered in room 404 on Monday afternoon for their advisory class, which they attend twice a week to prepare for job interviews.
As they sat down and took out their notebooks, they chatted freely in Spanish. But once class began promptly at 12:10, only English was allowed.
“Today, we’re going to go over tips for making a positive first impression,” announced Raymond.
Each of the students read aloud one of the tips. They stumbled over a few words, such as “initiative,” “jewelry” and “well-groomed.”
“The most important words in body language are ‘eye contact’ and ‘posture,’” read Ana Alvarez. “Everyone talks about eye contact in New York.”
“Is it different where you’re from?” Raymond asked.
“We don’t talk about it as much,” Alvarez replied.
The students then watched a video that demonstrated the dos and don’ts of an interview situation. Afterward, Raymond reminded the students to “always remember to learn the names of co-workers.”
“People call them by names for people back home,” said, Asmelvin (Joel) Vasquez.
“Nicknames,” chimed in David Soriano.
Starting in October, approximately 90 Emma Lazarus students will partake in the internship program, Learning to Work. The program offers placement at 25 different companies and organizations around the city.
“We try to place them according to their interests and skills,” said Debra Cardenas, one of Emma Lazarus’s six L.T.W. counselors.
“It’s an opportunity for them to have that professional work experience, and it forces them to practice their English outside of school,” Cardenas continued. “We don’t want them to be lackeys, or photocopying all day. They have to get value out of it.”
To place the students in an appropriate work setting, the L.T.W. advisors sit down with them individually to talk about their career interests. Among the local employers are Henry Street Settlement, a Lower East Side social service nonprofit, and the Oliver Scholars Program, a nonprofit youth education placement agency in the Financial District.
Eighteen-year-old Alicia Vasquez is gearing up for an interview this week with Oliver Scholars, where she would work in an administrative position for ten hours a week at $7.25 per hour.
“I’d like to learn more about office [work],” said Vasquez. “I want to grow in that area.”
Vasquez, who moved to the U. S. from the Dominican Republic a year ago, is intent on getting ahead. “My parents wanted to give to my sisters and me a better future,” she said. “They gave us the opportunity to come here, and we need to take it.”
As for preparing for the interview, Vasquez said, “I’ll practice answering a few questions about myself, and I’ll look for appropriate clothes I can wear that day.”
Alena Victor, the school’s internship counselor, visits each work site to delegate a work mentor for her students. “A lot of them are coming in with no work experience,” she said. “[The students] need that extra nudge in terms of being able to take initiative and being able to communicate what their concerns are,” she said.
Xiao Ting advanced from E. S. L. level 2 last year to level 5 this year, thanks in part to an internship at a fitness center in Brooklyn. While her main job was to spiff up the studios, Ting also was allowed to take ballet and African dance classes. “It really helps us a lot — after we graduate, we need to study and to work, so we can’t waste time to learn how to work,” she said.
This year, Ting will be interning at Urban Arts Partnership, where she’ll learn about cinematography and photography.
Ting and her peers also have a range of citywide community service programs and after-school activities to choose from. Last spring, 35 Emma Lazarus students planted tulips and raked leaves at nearby Seward Park. Ten of the youths are now attending a dance workshop at the African Burial Ground Visitor Center in the Financial District. On October 2, a group of students will help set up an exhibit celebrating the Day of the Dead, a Mexican holiday, at El Museo del Barrio in Harlem, which they visited nearly a dozen times in September to decorate for the current gallery exhibit, “Nueva York.”
“It was fun,” said Julio Flores, who helped decorate the museum with 9,000 marigolds. In 2007, Flores moved from Venezuela to New York with his family. He has advanced by five E.S.L. levels since coming to the school last fall.
“At my last school, [Franklin K Lane High School in Brooklyn], they taught classes in Spanish, and most of the teachers were speaking in Spanish,” he said. “Here, as you can see, there are many different cultures – I’m speaking all day with them [in English], and I feel comfortable.”
Last year, Flores interned at Brooklyn United for Innovative Local Development. He’s now applying for a fall internship at an information technology company. “I want to learn more information about my future career,” he said enthusiastically.
In addition to internships, L.T.W. arranges trips for Emma Lazarus students who already have their sights set on college. A group of the students visited Columbia, N.Y.U., the Fashion Institute of Technology, and other colleges around the city, where they got to attend informational sessions and take tours of the different campuses.
“Most of the students have never been physically on a college campus in New York,” said L.T.W. advisor Thomas Wernham. “We want to give that initial exploration, let them see what they like and don’t like.”
Despite the linguistic and cultural barriers, Principal Kellog is confident her students will not only graduate from Emma Lazarus, but will have bright futures.
“We really do believe these kids can make it, if they do everything right and work as hard as they can,” she said.