Magazine article Newsweek

The Manhattan School That's Helping Immigrant Students Succeed; the Manhattan School That's Narrowing the Achievement Gap for Immigrant Teens

Magazine article Newsweek

The Manhattan School That's Helping Immigrant Students Succeed; the Manhattan School That's Narrowing the Achievement Gap for Immigrant Teens

Article excerpt

Byline: Zach Schonfeld

A generation or two ago, Manhattan's Lower East Side was known for its bustling immigrant population. Today it's mostly a jumble of upscale bistros and luxury condominiums, but on a forgotten corner of Hester Street--not quite Chinatown, but definitely not SoHo--that tradition prevails. There, on the second and fourth floor of an old YMCA building, sits Emma Lazarus High School, a highly specialized institution for students learning English as a second language (ESL).

Newsweek's Top High Schools Special Section

The average New Yorker won't have heard of the school. Barely five years in operation and with its nontraditional mission, it won't pop up on Gossip Girl or attract the children of Manhattan's wealthy elite. But in terms of narrowing the achievement gap and preparing students from low-income and otherwise disadvantaged backgrounds for college, Emma Lazarus is placed among the top-ranked high schools in the country.

Its classes serve students like Andy Caceres who, at the age of 17, arrived in the country from Ecuador, knowing no English words or phrases besides Hello and How are you. He enrolled at Emma Lazarus. "That's why I can speak English right now," Caceres tells Newsweek of his three years at the school. "The environment, the teachers--they help you, they're very supportive. They took care of every student." He graduated with a diploma and, last month, started college at Borough of Manhattan Community College.

This all comes as a remarkable validation for Melody Kellogg, the former teacher and guidance counselor who founded Emma Lazarus High School in 2009 and has been its principal ever since. It is late August, and teachers and counselors stream in and out of Kellogg's office with questions about lesson plans and meeting schedules for the impending school year. "There are a number of kids who absolutely without a doubt never would have graduated independent of here because they were failing where they were," Kellogg says. As a transfer school, Emma Lazarus only accepts students who attended ninth grade elsewhere. About 70 or 80 percent of them, Kellogg adds, enter the school at the age of 16 or older as a beginner-level ESL student--sometimes without knowing a single word of English or even being entirely literate in their own language. Often, they live with a relative or friend while their parents travel in search of work.

How do you go about teaching those students? "It's really, really challenging. You have to be very cautious that--you're not dumbing down material," Kellogg says. "These kids are bright, they're smart, they want to learn--but they don't have the language that goes with it. And they don't have the academic language." It helps that ESL coaches and second-language supporters are often present for added techniques and assistance. Adds Mike O'Connell, a science and math teacher at the school: "You have to emphasize and compensate for that and create all the scaffolds necessary to support those students."

In the grand scheme of New York's public school system, this is still an experiment. Emma Lazarus opened in 2009 as part of a Department of Education (DOE) initiative for new small schools--it has around 250 students. Kellogg had been teaching at another ESL-focused school in Manhattan, and she submitted the design and program to the DOE, which then subjected her to a lengthy interview and vetting process. …

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