NYC’s Most Vulnerable Population by Rob Gulya

This week, one of the paraprofessionals I work with came up to me to ask about her student. My colleague is acting as a bilingual para for a 10th grade student who has been in the country for 3 years, arriving at the age for 16. She asked me, quite bluntly, “Why does ________ have a para?” I explained that because of his limited English ability, the student should be in a bilingual program but, for one reason or another, was not placed in one and sent to our school instead. A paraprofessional was given as compensation.

While para-professional support is better than nothing, there is a fundamental misunderstanding in how NYC is support its most difficult population

There’s a population NYC is desperately losing touch with. They sit in our classrooms, constantly confused because their needs aren’t being met. They require greater resources than most schools– and teachers– have. They require more training and knowledge than most teachers are given. These students are the long-term ELL (English Language Learners) and our SIFE (Students with Interrupted Formal Education) who populate our classrooms.

These students come into our schools behind their peers and, often, unable to read in both their native language and in English. In addition to being behind academically, they are often older, making social as well as academic transition difficult. Moreover, because of the 21 year age limit in NYC public schools, they often need to make significant progress in less time than their peers. This mix of being academically behind but older than their classmates leads to frustration and anxiety that can cause students to become disengaged, unmotivated, or leading them to act out.

The numbers tell just as daunting a tale. Although the NYC Department of Education does not release or track SIFE/long term Ell student performance on Regents or their graduation rate, only 4.5% of SIFE/ long-term ELL met 8th grade standards in 2008, 41% met math 8th grade standards.

My 9th grade class currently has a student– Joseph– who is new to the school after living in the Dominican Republic for the last several months (prior to that he was in a school north of NYC). He has shown some ability to read and comprehend text in Spanish, but struggles to transition to written English (his verbal comprehension is much higher). In addition to struggling in reading, Joseph has anxiety around speaking and writing, which is common for long-term ELL students because of a fear of social ridicule or failure. This past week, I was able to work with Joseph 1-1. We were discussing the text Night, written on about a 7th grade level, and, when asked how the narrator describes himself, Joseph told me “religious.” I prompted him to write down his answer. He stared at me blankly. I told him to begin with “He describes himself as…”

Slowly, Joseph picked up his pen and started to write, “Hi.” Then he stopped. He looked at me, put the pen down and refused to write anymore. Joseph could see he had made a mistake, but didn’t know how to fix it. So he shut down.

I picked up his pen and scribed for him for the rest of the period, and he was able to show some comprehension of the text once the anxiety of writing was removed. Long-term, however, this is not a solution for Joseph, who needs more support in transitioning his knowledge from Spanish to English, both in writing and verbally. As a result, Joseph is off task consistently throughout the period, choosing to converse with friends in Spanish than struggle his way through written English.

 

Paulo, who I wrote about at the introduction to this post, illustrates some of the injustices and struggles that face these students day-to-day in the classroom. Rather than being placed in a bilingual school with teachers who are trained to support language acquisition, Paulo was placed in my school which, like many in NYC, does not have proper ESL support. With all of the best intentions, ELLs were placed in ICT classrooms, so there would be the support of two teachers to help meet their needs. This job often falls to the Special Education Teacher, who has experience and training in meeting individual needs and working with students who are behind. For my first few years teaching, I agreed with this philosophy. I create scaffolded and differentiated materials already, so these can be used to meet the needs of long-term ELLs and SIFE as well. It made sense.

What I’ve learned though, is how wrong this way of thinking is. Although I am good at meeting individual needs and working with low-level students, I do not understand the social, emotional, and academic process of language acquisition. With Paulo, I’m not sure if he is making appropriate progress or if the support I offer is helping. I provide him with English and Spanish versions of texts, expecting him to read in English and use the Spanish version to support comprehension of difficult passages. This seems to be working, as at least Paulo is completing some assignments, but I don’t know what the next steps are or what other social and emotional support is required. 

Additionally, there is the question of time and resources. Because of the lack of Spanish texts available, I do all translation of texts on my own. Additionally, each ELL student should have a daily language objective, where they learn how to use a specific word for a specific purpose, to support their language acquisition. However, given the varied needs to students in my classrooms, it would be nearly impossible for me to give Special Education and ELLs the appropriate support they need.

 

Around NYC, we are losing these students. In addition to academic challenges, many SIFE come to NYC alone and are often traumatized by the experience or end up in shelters or foster care. They have not had consistent schooling, so struggle to sit down for long periods of time or follow rules like asking to use the bathroom, which is unnecessary in most other aspects of life. And, because of the shortage of ESL teachers in the city, many of these students lack the academic support they need.

When I think of Joseph and of Paulo, I’m constantly confronted with the simple fact that I lack the time, resources, and expertise to meet their needs. I do my best with them on a day-to-day basis, but I know this doesn’t come close to meeting their needs and that these students are in serious risk of becoming discouraged, disengaged, and dropping out of school. What we need are programs, support, and training to help this very vulnerable population succeed.

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