Posted on September 9, 2004

HISD Plans School For Immigrants

Jason Spencer, Houston Chronicle, Sep. 8

Antonio Cruz came to Houston two years ago looking for the kind of education and job he couldn’t find in his native Mexico.

But the 11 p.m. to 6 a.m. janitorial shift Cruz works at a shopping mall isn’t exactly conducive to school attendance. So, like thousands of other teenage immigrants, Cruz dropped out of the Houston Independent School District to help his sister and brother-in-law make rent on the apartment they share in southwest Houston.

“I am working very hard, and I don’t have enough time to study,” Cruz, 17, said.

Interim HISD Superintendent Abe Saavedra on Tuesday announced his plan to open a new school by January exclusively for students like Cruz: immigrants with precious little time to meet graduation requirements before they’re too old for public school. The Newcomers Charter School initially will serve about 125 students ages 17-21, offering year-round instruction, weekend classes and flexible hours.

“Many of these young people walk into our high schools knowing little or no English and are held to the same high expectations as every other child,” Saavedra said during his announcement in the Lee High School library. “We must provide the extra support and flexibility that these teenagers need to graduate.”

Nearly 12,000 of HISD’s 211,000 students were born in another country, and the district has seen a 6 percent increase in immigrant enrollment in the past five years, Saavedra said.

Cruz is one of about 600 HISD dropouts who were visited at home earlier this month by volunteers trying to persuade them to give school another try.

“The opportunity to go back to school was in the back of my mind, so I felt happy about it,” he said. “I’m a little upset at the same time, because I still have to help my sister and brother-in-law.”

Cruz said he plans to take midafternoon classes. He wants to be a police officer.

Diplomas, not GEDs

Saavedra will ask the Board of Education to create the new school at its Thursday meeting. He said he hopes to eventually enroll about 250 students in the newcomers school and create three more schools just like it around Houston. Students would work toward diplomas, not GEDs.

“I am fully in support of it, and I think the whole school board will be as well,” said trustee Harvin Moore.

HISD officials estimate that it will cost $454,000 to open the school.

Other school districts have made similar attempts to cater to immigrant students. This year, educators in Fresno, Calif., opened the New Americans School to handle an expected influx of more than 1,000 Hmong refugees from Thailand. The school cost nearly $1 million.

“A lot of these kids had nothing in the refugee camps,” said Susan Bedi, a Fresno schools spokeswoman. “We gave them a box of cereal, and they didn’t know how to open it.”

HISD’s visits to dropouts’ homes and the new school are parts of Saavedra’s 100-day plan to address the district’s biggest challenges. The state only recently reinstated Houston’s “acceptable” accountability rating after a yearlong investigation revealed HISD had drastically underreported the number of dropouts in the 2000-2001 school year.

Former HISD Superintendent Kaye Stripling has estimated that as many as 40 percent of the district’s students never get a diploma.

Lee principal picked

Saavedra has asked Lee Principal Steve Amstutz to head up the new school, which could be located within Lee High School or somewhere nearby. Lee students represent 70 nationalities and 42 languages, Amstutz said. The school, in southwest Houston near Richmond Avenue and Hillcroft, had 125 immigrant students last year who were 18 or older, he said.

Those older students often are embarrassed to be sent to freshman classrooms, he said.

“They bring you into a room and sit you next to a 14-year-old,” Amstutz said. “How does that make you feel? We’re creating an environment that’s more appropriate for adult learners.”

Still, Amstutz acknowledges there are major challenges involved in getting foreign-born students to graduate with only a few years of school. “We don’t have any magic pills, no single solution,” he said. “The clock is ticking against them. Our goal is to do as much as we can, as fast as we can.”

Immigrant students will decide whether to attend the newcomers school or a traditional school. The district is counting on religious organizations, community service groups and apartment managers to refer students to the school.

Charters Targeting Niches In Populace

Karen Rouse, Denver Post, Sep. 7

The New America School opens next month to new immigrants who want English lessons and a diploma.

Two nonprofits in Denver have teamed up to open a charter school for homeless youth in 2005. And in Aurora, a multi-nationality group of parents plans to open a charter school that will attract Korean, African, Mexican and other international students to its science, technology and math-based curriculum next year.

For more than a decade, charter schools have been an alternative for Colorado parents less than satisfied with traditional offerings. The lure is often a focused curriculum, small classes and parental involvement in the school’s operation.

“The idea of charter schools offering a particular program . . . is one of the premises on which chartering is based,” said William Haft, associate director of National Association of Charter School Authorizers.

But these new applicants are looking beyond curriculum to target specific niche groups.

“It’s something that has occurred in other places and I do see it as a natural development,” Haft said.

One reason is that charters have an advantage: flexibility, Haft said.

While districts, large ones in particular, are charged with serving the needs of a wide range of students, charters have the flexibility to design programs to serve a specific population, and decide how dollars are spent, Haft said.

Jim Griffin, executive director of the Colorado League of Charter Schools, agrees that districts must often be concerned with the needs of a diverse group.

From their perspective, “if you’re serving 85 percent of your families well, you probably think you’re doing well,” he said.

Madolyn Paroski, president of the Aurora Public Schools Board of Education, said districts can be prohibited by budgets, space availability and other needs to design a school that caters to a particular population.

“There are times when charters can fill niches that public schools are not filing at this time and they add choice to the district,” she said. However, Paroski cautioned that they need to be quality programs because the students still belong to the district.

Urban Peak Denver has been providing shelter, meal, health and other services to homeless and runaway youths since 1988, said Jamie Van Leeuwen, associate executive director of Urban Peak Denver.

Last year, 180 kids received a GED through the organization’s education program, he said.

Now the Jared Polis Foundation and Urban Peak are teaming up to expand services to create a charter school, Van Leeuwen said.

The school will be attached to services already provided by Urban Peak, such as addiction counseling and medical care. “It’s something that hasn’t been done,” Van Leeuwen said.

Organizers of the Lotus School for Excellence have been meeting with community groups to gain support for a fifth- through 12th-grade charter school in Aurora Public Schools. Organizers include natives of Russia and Chile as well as the United States, said coordinator Tim Saka, a native of Turkey.

While all students are welcome — charters cannot discriminate on the basis of race, nationality or ethnicity — the organizers hope to draw from Aurora’s large international population.

“The international students . . . are not going to be lost in the crowd,” Saka said.

Board member Rinaldo Valenzuela said, “Having kids from different parts of the world will be nice because they will have access to different cultures.”

These latest ventures aren’t the first to target specific populations. The Rocky Mountain Deaf School has been serving hearing-impaired children since 1997.

Passage Charter School in Montrose provides job and parenting training to teen parents, in addition to a core education. And Ridge View Academy, a Denver Public Schools charter in Watkins, serves young offenders.

Charters are semi-autonomous schools operated by a group of parents, teachers and/or community members within a school district. They operate under a charter agreement between the district and the members of the charter school’s governing board.

Of the 108 charter schools operating in Colorado this year, a dozen are new, according to the Colorado League of Charter Schools.

In Denver, the New America School, a high school designed for recent immigrants whose work and family schedules prohibit them from attending a traditional high school, will open Sept. 7.

When the charter school’s founders approached Denver Public Schools for charter approval last year, the board thought it was “innovative,” said board member Elaine Gantz Berman.

The board recognized a need was being filled, but aren’t leaving it up to charters to do all the work, she said. DPS is working on a non-charter immigrant school of its own, Gantz said.

“We want to do as thorough a job for all students and not just mainstream students,” she said.