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Society and Community:
Starting from Behind
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Accessing Education: Alternatives for Immigrants and At-Risk Students

Manhattan Comprehensive Night and Day High School caters to older, nontraditional high school students falling into two major categories: immigrants and at-risk students. As with Manhattan Comprehensive, an increasing number of school systems have turned to alternative schools and programs to cater to those students with special needs. Below, read about the responsibilities public school systems have to educating America's youth and find out about some of the challenges and successes educators have seen.

Homeless students: School districts are required to help homeless students obtain an uninterrupted education. The No Child Left Behind Act in 2001 was designed to improve education and achievement in America's schools. Some of its measures fortified the 1987 McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act. The new law defines more clearly the rights of homeless children and prescribes how schools should remove obstacles that could prevent students from obtaining an education. As a result of this legislation, a growing number of schools provide after-school tutoring, summer camps, school supplies and clothes.

One example of the special programs being offered can be seen in Maryland. Baltimore City schools offer a six-week summer camp for homeless children. Here, younger students are provided with academic and physical activities, as well as two meals a day, while older students participate in job training. This fall, states will be required for the first time to report how many homeless students are meeting minimum requirements on standardized reading and math tests.

At-risk students: A survey for the National Center for Education Statistics showed that 39% of public school districts administered at least one alternative school or program for at-risk students during the 2000-01 school year, more often in urban districts than suburban and rural ones. According to the report:

Concern among the public, educators, and policymakers about violence, weapons, and drugs on elementary and secondary school campuses, balanced with concern about sending potentially dangerous students "out on the streets," has spawned an increased interest in alternative schools and programs.
The initial challenge comes in recognizing at-risk students. Schools with alternative programs cited the following as possible reasons to transfer students from a regular school: possession, distribution, or use of alcohol or drugs; physical attacks or fights; chronic truancy; continual academic failure; possession or use of a firearm or other weapon; disruptive verbal behavior. Separating these students from their regular public schools is not the only function of alternative programs. Most alternative schools provide special services and practices for their students beyond standard instruction, such as curricula leading toward a regular high school diploma, academic counseling, smaller class size, remedial instruction, crisis/behavioral intervention, career counseling, extended school day or school year, evening or weekend classes.

Foreign students: Immigrants and children of immigrants are particularly vulnerable to slipping through the cracks in the public school system. In 1982, the Supreme Court decision Plyler v. Doe struck down a Texas law that had required children to prove legal residency before they were eligible for enrollment in the public school system. This law worked directly against both homeless children and illegal immigrants. Despite this ruling guaranteeing a free public education to all children living in the United States, access remains a problem for many of these children. As the Web site for the PBS documentary THE CITY points out, "undocumented immigrants face the fear of discovery and deportation whenever they come in contact with an official government body, including a public school. Once in a school, immigrant children often become victims of anti-immigrant hostility, particularly in areas with high immigrant populations."

The National Coalition of Advocates for Students has released a flyer informing students of their educational rights. As a result of the Plyler ruling, public schools may not:

  • deny admission to a student during initial enrollment or at any other time on the basis of undocumented status;
  • treat a student differently to verify residency;
  • engage in any practices that "chill" or hinder the right of access to school;
  • require students or parents to disclose or document their immigration status;
  • make inquiries of students or parents that may expose their undocumented status;
  • require social security numbers as a requirement for admission to school, as this may expose undocumented status.
Complications arise within some schools that are graded on students' progress, when administrators fear that low scores from students with limited English proficiency (LEP) will drag down schoolwide averages. In such systems, LEP students may be placed based on language skills rather than knowledge of the curriculum, landing them in classes with learning disabled children or in a lower grade level than the one they completed in their homeland. The National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition (NCELA) calculates that more than five million students are LEP students, bringing over 400 different languages into American classrooms each year.

In an effort to cater to non-English speakers, administrators are introducing bilingual education in some areas but this has proven to be a controversial issue. Critics argue that students in bilingual programs drop out of school just as often as immigrants in English-only programs. THE CITY's site stresses that this view does not take into account "the complexities of students' learning styles, teacher training or job opportunities that might encourage students to drop out." Schools across the country continue to strive for the most effective way to integrate immigrants into American public schools. The NCELA answers the question: What Program Models Exist to Serve English Language Learners?

Sources: BALTIMORE SUN; FindLaw; National Center for Education Statistics; National Coalition for Advocates of Students; National Institute of Child Health and Human Development; The U.S. Constitution Online

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