Immigration is a hot national issue that commands many headlines, but seldom is there a spotlight on meeting the challenges of teaching the children of these “new immigrants.” Some enterprising National Schools of Character from New Jersey and New York took steps this summer to open up this conversation.
The backdrop: Phil Fusco, New York Schools of Character Coordinator, and I, both national site visitors for Character.org, observed an unusual phenomenon in both states—National Schools of Character with large immigrant populations, mainly from the Caribbean, Central and South America, the so called “new immigrants.” Despite the multiple challenges of high poverty, high ESL and ELL numbers, homes in which English is not primarily spoken, students in these schools, all of which embrace a strong character framework, thrive. Academics have improved, disciplinary incidents are low, graduation rate is high, and parental support is up.
We asked, “WHAT are these schools doing that enables their students to succeed while students in schools with similar demographics are languishing?”
The result: six National Schools of Character from both sides of the Hudson readily agreed to trade secrets at an interstate conference in Elizabeth on August 1. William Trusheim, president of the New Jersey Alliance for Social, Emotional, and Character Development, added the assistance of his organization, and Sulisnet Jimenez, the former principal of School 28 in Elizabeth, a failing school that was transformed into a National School of Character, offered Alexander Hamilton Preparatory Academy Annex as our gathering spot.
The Day Unfolds
With each school accentuating a specific aspect, seven major themes emerged: strong district support of a character framework for all students; a caring faculty attuned to the need for inclusiveness; formal mentoring programs; “students helping students” to adjust, assimilate and learn; creative ways in involving parents; courage in addressing controversial issues; and listening to many voices in pursuit of equity and excellence. The presentations were:
Equity, Expectations, and Excellence: Shaping Kids to Succeed in School and Life, Sulisnet Jimenez, former Principal; Cassie Pedrosa, Counselor, Juan Pablo Duarte-Jose Julian Marti—School 28, Elizabeth, NJ
Thinking out of the Box: Using Ingenuity to Transform 500 Kids into ONE Family, Luis Jaime, Vice Principal; Maura Harrington, Spanish Teacher, Somerset Intermediate School, North Plainfield, NJ
Where Greatness Starts and Flourishes: An Innovative District Addresses Immigration and Equity, Dr. Sheilah Jefferson-Isaac, Assistant Principal of Northern Parkway School; Shantel Brooks, Assistant Principal of California Avenue School; Celeste Cruz, Music/Choral Director at Turtle Hook Middle School; Iraida Bodre, Assistant Principal at Northern Parkway School, Uniondale School District, Uniondale, NY
Mentoring, Mentoring Everywhere: The KEY to High School Success, Dr. Jerard Stephenson, Principal, North Plainfield High School, North Plainfield, NJ.
The Outcome: A Call for a Larger Conference
The audience, consisting of teachers, administrators, and community members, responded enthusiastically and recommended a larger conference next year. What lingered with many were the personal vignettes. Principal Jimenez, an immigrant from Colombia, recalled her plight when, not knowing one word of English, she was dropped into a strange school in a strange land. Two students, experiencing a similar fate at School 28, told their poignant stories, grateful for teachers who allayed their fears and programs that aided survival.
Wooing parents to come to these schools is no easy task. Somerset’s Luis Jaime described a health-related grant that offered supper and baby-sitting services as a way to draw parents. Northern Parkways’ Iraidre Bodre’s lively account of her school’s Parent Camp, a Saturday of surprising activities, delighted the audience.
Service learning takes a different turn in most of these schools with bilingual students trained to serve as hallway guides, translators at parent meetings, and buddies to new students. Jerard Stephenson described North Plainfield High’s approach where every incoming freshman has a student mentor, and bilingual students work with students from many lands. Inclusivity is big in this school in which 41 percent speak Spanish at home while 6 percent speak other languages. Stephenson described a student from Egypt who, thanks to his peers, managed to speak English fluently within a year—but with a Spanish accent.
The audience saw the conference as an opportunity for present and future networking JoAnne Ferrara, Associate Dean for Undergraduate Education at Manhattanville College, said, “You brought together a wonderful group of inspiring educators for a lovely exchange of ideas. We look forward to continuing the conversation.” Joe Carvin, founder and CEO of One World United and Virtuous, agreed: “I found the presentations inspirational, particularly in a world where all too often educators take a deficit view of majority-minority districts.” Phil Brown, Senior Consultant for the National School Climate Center, added, “You’re on the right road. Now, to make it available to more educators.”
If these National Schools of Character have their way, strategies for teaching the new immigrants will soon be on the front burner.
Eileen Dachnowicz is a senior consultant with Character.org. She has worked as a Character.org trainer, site visitor and writer since 2005. She is a Co-Coordinator for the NJ Schools of Character and a NJASECD Trustee. The retired supervisor of academic affairs at Cranford HS (2004 National School of Character), she received Channel 7’s “Above & Beyond” Inspiring Educator award.