college plans

As Washington decides their fate, ‘Dreamers’ preparing for college are stuck in limbo

While many high schoolers spend spring of their senior year coasting through classes and waiting to hear back from colleges, undocumented students who hope to attend college spend their time calling lawyers, consulting school counselors, and scouring the internet in search of ways to pay for school without the help of federal financial aid or student loans — assuming they even get in.

That process, anxiety-provoking even in a normal year, has become incalculably more chaotic this admissions season — even traumatic — as these young undocumented immigrants watch President Trump and lawmakers wrangle over Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the program that has until now allowed them to remain in the country without having to fear deportation.

As the policy battle nears a climax, these students aren’t just breathlessly waiting to learn whether they’ll be accepted into college — they’re waiting to see whether they have a future in this country.

“It’s different for me. It’s definitely more stressful and there are times when you want to give up,” said an undocumented student at KIPP NYC College Prep High School, who is graduating this year and applying to colleges. She requested anonymity because of her legal status. “But then I remind myself that regardless of what’s going on, I’m still going to do what I’ve set myself to do.”

High school counselors are also feeling the strain. They already faced the difficult task of helping undocumented students compete for private scholarships, and finding schools that will support those students once they’re on campus. Now those counselors also must monitor each twist and turn of the immigration debate in Washington, while, somehow, trying to keep their undocumented students focused on college.

One of those counselors is John Kearney, who works at Guadalupe Centers Alta Vista High School, a charter school in Kansas City, Missouri. Dozens of his soon-to-graduate students are beneficiaries of DACA, a program created under former President Obama that allows undocumented immigrants who were brought to the country as children to avoid deportation and work here legally. Lately, they have been asking him why they should even consider college when their fate in the U.S. is so uncertain.

“The big question is, ‘Why? Why go to college, and then I can’t even work, then why?’” said Kearney, who also helped start a nonprofit that provides scholarships to undocumented students. “It’s a really tough question.”

As of Friday, President Trump and lawmakers were still locked in heated negotiations over DACA, which Trump said this fall that he would eliminate unless Congress enshrined it in law. Without an agreement, it is set to expire March 5, just as graduating seniors firm up their college plans. If that happens, young immigrants, often called Dreamers, could lose the few crucial protections they have. For many, their DACA status has already lapsed.

Even with DACA’s protections, Dreamers face massive hurdles to enroll in college: They don’t qualify for federal aid or loans, and, in some states, are barred from receiving financial aid or even attending public universities. Out of the estimated 65,000 undocumented students who graduate from high school every year, only 5-10 percent enroll in college.

Following Trump’s announcement in September, counselors have also had to race against the clock counting down to DACA’s expiration: That meant juggling college application deadlines with the October cutoff for students to apply for renewed DACA status.

The KIPP charter school network received a donation this year to help students pay for the renewal fee, which has been a godsend for many students — including the young woman who is graduating from KIPP NYC College Prep High School.

As soon as she learned the school would pay the fee for her, she immediately called her father, who is also undocumented and repairs beauty-salon equipment for a living.

“My dad was definitely trying to round up the money before the deadline, so it was a blessing that the school was able to find a donor,” she said. “I told him not to worry about it and it was a relief — like a weight off his shoulders.”

If the girl was trying to relieve her father’s stress, her college counselor, Rob Santos, was trying to do the same for her. Even as she balanced college-application essays, transcripts, and the rest, she was also coming to realize how quickly her life would change if DACA is not extended.

“There was definitely extra emotional support that I’ve had to provide this year,” Santos said. “I definitely had my DACA student in my office, and tears were happening.”

Santos keeps a running list of the colleges that accept students who don’t have permanent legal status and the few scholarships available to them. Many of those scholarships require undocumented students to have DACA status. If the program ends, it’s unclear whether students will still be eligible.

Still, Santos said his dreamer student rarely talks about the political furor surrounding her future in the U.S. as she awaits her college-acceptance letter. Instead, she’s more likely to discuss her hope of one day studying business and fashion.

“Our DACA students are resilient. They’re optimistic,” Santos said. “But they’re also realistic for what could actually happen.”

language learning

Westminster district signs agreement to better serve students learning English

Students work on an English assignment at M. Scott Carpenter Middle School in Westminster. (Photo by Nic Garcia)

Teachers in Westminster schools will get new training for educating students who are learning English as a second language, and the district will have to create a way to evaluate how they are providing that education.

Those are just two of a long list of changes the district will make after the superintendent signed a settlement agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice to change the way Westminster Public Schools educates students who are identified as English language learners.

The settlement agreement is the result of a federal investigation in which the U.S. Department of Justice claimed the district was in violation of non-discrimination laws. According to a brief summary online, federal officials, “examined whether the district was identifying and serving its English learner students in compliance with the Equal Educational Opportunities Act,” and entered into the agreement “to resolve the District’s noncompliance” and “ensure that (English learner) students receive the support they need to succeed.”

The original complaint was not immediately available. The agreement also notes that the district disputed the claims and argued its schools were in compliance with the law.

School district officials were not available to comment on the agreement.

Other districts in the region have had issues with the federal government related to educating English learners. Adams 12 officials signed a settlement agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice in 2010. The Adams 14 district reached a settlement agreement in 2014 after an investigation by the U.S. Department of Education. Denver Public Schools has been under a court-ordered agreement for more than 30 years.

In the current school year, about 40 percent of Westminster’s almost 9,500 students are identified as English learners. The agreement, however, suggests that the district might not have properly identified all the students who need English language services.

As a whole, the Westminster district has struggled academically on state criteria. The district was one of the first to face state accountability hearings last year and was put on a state-ordered plan to show improvement.

In the latest round of state test data, the Westminster district was one of the only districts in the metro area where English language learners had worse growth scores than native English speakers in both math and English. In the previous round, there was no gap in growth scores on English tests.

When it comes to graduation rates, the district’s English learners outpace the district overall. In 2017, for instance, 59.3 percent of students who speak limited English graduated in four years, compared to 57.8 percent of all district students. Looking at six-year graduation rates, the district’s English learners also outpace the state’s English learners.

Among the most detailed changes in the settlement agreement are changes to how teachers are trained to work with students who speak a language other than English.

The agreement states that “all English language development instruction will be provided by a CLDE-endorsed teacher or one who is “on-track” to complete” the state certification.

According to data provided by the district in December, 83 district staff members at that point had that state certification to teach culturally or linguistically diverse students. The district has more than 1,000 staff members including about 500 teachers. The agreement lays out a timeline for when teachers must complete the certifications, when the district must revise their internal training for new teachers and when they must complete their training program for existing teachers.

The training materials for those programs must be submitted to the federal government for review within 60 days of the agreement.

Some of the other requirements laid out in the agreement:

  • Within 45 days, the district must identify students who after five years of services have not yet become fluent in English, and must ask the parents whether they want their children to get additional help.
  • The district will have to train employees to review whether parents need translation services, and will train them on how to explain to parents how they may get access to qualified interpreters.
  • Except in an emergency, the district is not to use students, family, or friends of parents for interpretation or translation services.
  • The district must review its procedures for identifying students who are English learners — including students who are new to the country, and students who are long-term English learners — and must review files of all students enrolled in the district during the last four years to find students who might have qualified as English learners and who weren’t tested or identified.
  • The district must also staff each school with a specialist with a state endorsement for teaching culturally and linguistically diverse students, including at the district’s Colorado STEM Academy and Westminster Academy for International Studies, in order to “provide an equal and meaningful opportunity for (English learners) to apply” and participate in the schools.

Read the full agreement below.



pre-k for all

New York City will add dual language options in pre-K to attract parents and encourage diversity

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, back right, visits a Mandarin pre-K dual language program at P.S. 20 Anna Silver on the Lower East Side.

Education Department officials on Wednesday announced the addition of 33 dual language pre-K programs in the 2018-19 school year, more than doubling the bilingual opportunities available for New York City’s youngest learners.

The expansion continues an aggressive push under the current administration, which has added 150 new bilingual programs to date. Popular with parents — there were 2,900 applications for about 600 pre-K dual language seats last year — the programs can also be effective in boosting the performance of students who are learning English as a new language.

Another possible benefit: creating more diverse pre-K classrooms, which research has shown are starkly segregated in New York City.

Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña said the new programs reflect the city’s commitment to serving all students, even as a national debate rages over immigration reform.

“It’s important to understand that immigrants or people who speak a second language are an asset,” Fariña said. She called bilingual education “a gift that I think all schools should have.”

Included in the expansion are the city’s first dual language pre-K programs in Bengali and Russian, which will open in Jamaica, Queens, and the Upper West Side, Manhattan, respectively. The other additions will build on programs in Spanish, Mandarin and Italian. Every borough is represented in the expansion, with 11 new programs in Manhattan, nine in Brooklyn, six in Queens, five in the Bronx, and two on Staten Island.

In the dual-language model, students split their time between instruction in English and another language. At P.S. 20 Anna Silver, where the recent expansion was announced, pre-K students start the morning in English and transition to Mandarin after nap time. Experts say the model works best when the class includes an equal mix of students who are proficient in each language so they can learn from each other as well as the teacher, though it can often be difficult to strike that balance.

Officials and some advocates view dual-language programs as a tool for integration by drawing middle-class families eager to have their children speak two languages into neighborhood schools that they otherwise may not have considered. Research has shown that New York City’s pre-K classrooms tend to be more segregated than kindergarten. In one in six pre-K classrooms, more than 90 percent of students are from a single racial or ethnic background. That’s compared with one in eight kindergarten classrooms, according to a 2016 report by The Century Foundation.

Sharon Stapel, a mother from Brooklyn, said she knew early on that she wanted her daughter to learn another language and strike relationships across cultures. So she travels to the Lower East Side with her four-year-old, Finch, to attend the Mandarin dual-language pre-K program at P.S. 20 Anna Silver. On Wednesday, the city announced it will add a Spanish dual language program at the school.

“We really see it as how you build community with your neighbors and your friends,” Stapel said. “It was also an opportunity for Finch to become involved and engage in the cultures and in the differences that she could see in the classrooms — and really celebrate that difference.”

Citywide, about 13 percent of students are learning English as a new language. That number does not include pre-K since the state does not have a way to identify students’ language status before kindergarten. However, based on census data, it is estimated that 30 percent of three- and four-year-olds in New York are English learners.

Dual-language programs can benefit students who are still learning English — more so than English-only instruction. Nationally and in New York City, students who are learning English are less likely to pass standardized tests and graduate from high school. In one study, students who enrolled in dual-language courses in kindergarten gained the equivalent of one year of reading instruction by eighth grade, compared with their peers who received English-only instruction.

The city has been under pressure to improve outcomes for English learners. Under the previous administration, New York City was placed on a state “corrective action plan” that required the education department to open 125 new bilingual programs by 2013. Though the city fell short of that goal, the current administration has agreed to place every English learner in a bilingual program by the 2018-19 school year.

Among the greatest barriers to achieving that is finding qualified teachers, Fariña said. In some cases, it can be hard to find teachers who are fluent in the target language. In others, teachers who are native in a foreign language may only be certified in their home country, and it can be hard to transfer that certification to New York.

In order to open an Urdu program recently, Fariña said, the teacher, who holds a degree from another country, went through Teaching Fellows, an alternative certification program that usually caters to career-changers or recent college grads.

“I think the biggest challenge we have right now is ensuring our teacher preparation courses are keeping up with our need and demand for teachers who can teach another language,” she said.