With a refugee population that makes up nearly a quarter of Utica’s population, educating students with limited English skills can be a challenge.
The situation, though, is more complex.
The Utica City School District, one of the poorest in the state, along with seven other New York school districts, is part of a lawsuit claiming the state owes them money. The lawsuit was first filed in 2008. Then last spring, the NYCLU claimed that for years, Utica turned away 17-20-year-old refugees and diverted them into alternative programs. In November, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman sued the district, citing similar concerns as the NYCLU.
While all of this happens, the students and the families at the heart of the lawsuits must make life choices, but are left with few options when it comes to their education.
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Yoe Noe, 15, a refugee from the camp Mae La in Thailand, arrived in America in 2007, but he made a few stops along the journey to today.
First arriving in Fort Wayne, Indiana, Yoe Noe and his family moved to Arizona and Texas before residing here in Utica, where they have lived for the last two years. Now, Yoe Noe and his 19-year-old brother, Mu Hei, feel comfortable in Utica. Both are English as a Second Language (ESL) students that attend Proctor High School and are proficient in the English language.
Life in America, however, was not always as easy as it is now.
As a refugee, Yoe Noe’s situation is common in Utica and the rest of New York State - he’s faced with the prospect of either working or attending school up until 21 years as dictated by law. Yoe Noe’s family typifies a refugee family in the area – some in school, some with jobs and the rest trying to find their way.
His story is also at the root of the dilemma for educators. Even at an advanced high school age with, at first, little proficiency in English, he will be expected to pass state tests. This creates another problem for the district. Does it focus its resources on helping students pass the state-mandated tests, or attempt to prepare students for life in the United States?
Either way, refugees like Yoe Noe and his family still need to live.
Using a translator to do everyday tasks like reading the mail or buying groceries, the Burmese-speaking family had a hard time adjusting to life in the United States. Yoe Noe and his brother don’t need the help of a translator for most of their everyday activities now, but they serve as a translator for their parents, who do not speak English.
The parents speak only Burmese. They cannot read or write in their native language, meaning they cannot even look up translations if needed.
This causes a conflict for employment, a vital reason for the family’s several relocations. Currently, the income for Yoe Noe’s family comes from his mother, A Min, who works as a seamstress, and his 22-year-old brother, Bar Lar, who works at K-Mart.
Bar Lar used to attend Proctor High School but decided to drop out to find a job. Legally, he would have been too old for high school and needed to provide for the family.
In just two years, the family is finding its way and assimilating into the culture.
For 15 minutes on the phone, Yoe Noe discussed what it is like to be a refugee in Utica. A few days later at his home, his family stopped what they were doing and greeted guests with a smile. The family filed in the living room, with some some sitting cross-legged on the floor. In the corner of the room was a television with video games stacked next to it.
Yoe Noe’s mother, A Min, walked in with a cup of coffee in each hand and placed them on the table. She and her husband spoke while Yoe Noe and Mu Hei translated in Burmese.
The family told the story of its journey to Utica. Then Yoe Noe and Mu Hei discussed the educational experience at Proctor.
Yoe Noe said there are two types of ESL classes, a beginner and an upper-level class. Noe is in the upper-level class, which is for students with a better grasp of the English language. His class is every other day and has roughly 20 students who speak a number of different languages.
A large part of this class consists of learning vocabulary. Yoe Noe said that the ESL class is a big part of his success not only in the English language, but also in school.
Besides the ESL class, Yoe Noe is like any other freshman at Proctor. He takes subjects like science, history and his favorite, math, with American students.
Yoe Noe said he tries to make friends with American students because just having conversations with them helps him learn the language. He said some of these non-ESL classes can be difficult because some of the terms in class are new vocabulary words that need clarification.
Yoe Noe often sees teachers after school and during study hall to ask them about things he does not understand. This means when he is at home doing homework he is on his own or asks his older brother, Mu Hei, who helps him as much as he can.
Where other students’ parents may be able to help them with homework, Yoe Noe’s parents cannot.
Yoe Noe and Mu Hei are good students, currently passing all of their classes. Mu Hei, who will be graduating from Proctor next spring, also attends BOCES during school hours where he learns about nursing, hoping to make that his future career. He passed his New York State English Regents last spring.
Yoe Noe, however, is not sure what he would like to do after high school. He wants to attend college and also still serves as the translator for his family. He also is only 15 and continues to assimilate, reaching out to new people via Facebook.
A few days after the visit, Yoe Noe sends a message to the guests. There was no status update, no basic greeting or thank you.
The message read, “I want to improve my reading and speaking skills in English… What can I do to improve?”
Shane Kelly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In the Utica City School District, underfunding and budget shortfalls aren’t a passing trend.
They’re a harsh reality that administrators and educators face on a daily basis.
The district is plagued by a unique set of circumstances that leaves it strapped for cash every year. Utica is the fifth most-impoverished district in Upstate New York, according to a 2015 Syracuse Post-Standard database that compiled information from the New York State Division of the Budget, New York State Education Department and the Statewide School Finance Consortium. State data shows more than 80 percent of the students in the district receive reduced or free lunch, an indicator of economic disadvantage in a school district.
Utica is also tasked with educating a growing group of students with limited English proficiency. The city has welcomed large waves of refugees over the last two decades and while this helps stave off population decline for the Rust Belt city, the influx of high-need students puts an increasing strain on a financially weak school district. Exactly how much is unknown.
The number of new students entering the English as a Second Language (ESL) program at Proctor High School has declined over the last three years. However, the total ESL population has increased to the highest yet with 492 students enrolled in ESL as of December 2015.
English Language Learners cost more to educate and require more resources, about $2,500 more on average per student than a student in the general population, according to school business officials quoted in a 2014 Utica Observer Dispatch article. A Freedom of Information request was filed, asking for detailed revenue and expenditure breakdowns for the ESL program and general education at Proctor High School over the last 10 years, but the district responded by saying “no such breakdowns exist.” That’s a challenge for a district that annually faces the threat of budget cuts and layoffs to make ends meet.
Overall, the primary source of the school district’s revenue is a formula known as Foundation Aid, a method that uses a variety of factors to determine how much aid a district should be allotted during a given year.
However, the formula does not fully account for high-needs and impoverished students, available property tax base and the number of refugee students - all issues the Utica City School District faces.
Underfunding: Not a New Problem
This isn’t a new problem, according to Dr. Rick Timbs of the Statewide School Finance Consortium, an advocacy group that studies school funding issues.
Foundation Aid was borne out of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity and was supposed to bring fairness to funding for school districts. Timbs says there’s one big problem - the state has never fully paid out Foundation Aid based on the formula. This leaves school districts around the state, and particularly Utica, shortchanged year after year, according to data compiled by the Statewide School Finance Consortium.
“The state is failing to give these districts the money they were supposed to receive,” Timbs said.
Foundation Aid was cut further in 2010, when the state instituted a policy known as the Gap Elimination Adjustment to eliminate a state budget shortfall by cutting school funding. Cuts of $2.7 billion were implemented to stem the state’s gap, according to a 2014 report by the Alliance for Quality Education.
The amount of funding cut under the GEA has shrunk, but the state is continuing on a path of failing to fully fund the Foundation Aid Formula. The Utica City School District is owed more than $51 million in foundation aid for this year alone, according to calculations based on New York State Department of Education data. Timbs said the Foundation Aid Formula was never given the chance to work properly.
“I’m not entirely sure if the Foundation Aid Formula is really broken or not because the state has never actually put it to work,” Timbs said. “If you create a formula and never actually listen to it when it comes time to pay, what kind of equity does that create?”
Foundation Aid was meant to be phased in over four years, with aid amounts increasing each year until the formula was fully funded.
Two years into the phase-in of Foundation Aid, the Gap Elimination Adjustment scaled back the aid districts receive.
What’s The Fix?
Proper funding of schools is a longstanding issue in New York State, and Timbs believes funding is political in nature and legislation has been slow to catch up with the constantly changing needs of school districts.
State Sen. Joseph Griffo (R, C, IP - 47th), whose district includes Utica, attributes the lag to one thing - not everyone in the New York State Senate or Assembly has high-need schools in their legislative district.
“When we come up with legislation to solve these funding crises, we have to compromise with legislators from all over the state. If you’re from Long Island, what do you care about the funding Utica gets?” Griffo said.
Nevertheless, Griffo and State Assemblyman Anthony Brindisi (D, 119th), also of Utica, have co-sponsored legislation that would provide an increase in funding for small-city school districts like Utica by changing the formulas used to compute aid to favor these smaller, higher-need districts.
Introduced in November 2015, the bill has been referred to the State Assembly and Senate education committees. The bill seeks to direct $96 million to districts like Utica. The only issue is that small-cities school districts are still owed $441 million for this year alone, according to data compiled from the State Department of Education.
While this legislation would provide additional funding going forward, it doesn’t make the Utica City School District whole after years of funding shortfalls.
That’s why the Utica City School District, joined by seven other small-city districts, took the State of New York to court, with a decision expected sometime in 2016.
Districts to State: Make Us Whole!
The districts argue that the state has underfunded them and failed to provide aid at the levels mandated by state education law.
Utica City School District Superintendent Bruce Karam contended during testimony in January 2015 that the state’s reduced funding has led to a decline in educational outcomes in Utica. The district declined requests for an interview, citing pending litigation, but in trial testimony and other public statements, Karam has made clear that the state should carry much of the blame for some of the low performances in his district.
According to trial testimony, Karam feels a solution to his students low performance is more staff and support for his high-need population. Witnesses for the state of New York even conceded that performance in the district would likely be much improved, had they received proper levels of funding.
A Losing Battle?
With a Foundation Aid funding gap of $51 million in 2015 alone, is the Utica City School District fighting a losing battle? State lawmakers are trying to rectify funding inequities but it’s not clear if their efforts will have any impact. Even if legislation is passed, the districts affected by the lack of Foundation Aid won’t see a penny for a while.
The legislation Brindisi and Griffo have introduced, which carries 19 combined co-sponsors in the New York State Senate and Assembly, proposes an amendment to the current aid formula.
The bill would add a “small-city poverty count” to the calculations as well as decreasing the income wealth index for these districts. The goal is to funnel additional aid to a category of schools that face unprecedented fiscal and educational challenges, according to lawmakers.
Based on figures released by Brindisi’s office, the bill would bring an additional $96 million in funding per year to the school districts categorized as small-city districts.
But the districts that would be helped by this funding are owed $537 million in Foundation Aid for 2015 alone, making $96 million seem like a drop in the bucket. The eight school districts named as plaintiffs in the small-cities case have requested that the state pay an additional $255 million annually to offset losses in Foundation Aid to help make funding equitable once again.
“I think we’ve seen some gains,” Timbs said. “People are starting to understand that something needs to be done.”
Marina Marcoue-O’Malley, policy director for the Alliance for Quality Education, an advocacy organization focused on ensuring high quality of public education throughout New York, took a pause when discussing the state’s current public education funding formula.
“Something needs to change,” O’Malley said.
With three lawsuits currently involving the Utica City School District, the question of what will change in terms of funding lingers over the district while a cloud of uncertainty looms above New York State, educators and students. The lawsuits compound matters for Utica, a poor district with a fluctuating immigrant and refugee population.
Under Education Article XI of the New York State Constitution, each student is guaranteed the right to a “sound basic education” - a “meaningful high school education.” In all three lawsuits, all parties involved are using this clause as the foundation for their argument - except there is little agreement as to which party is correct. In the midst of this legal complexity, concern for the future quality of education is growing.
The Maisto “Small Cities” lawsuit includes Utica, which, along with seven other districts, claims it is being underfunded by the state. The NYCLU class-action lawsuit alleges that Utica denied refugee students 17 and older an education. And New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s lawsuit, on behalf of the state, claims the district adopted and enforced a policy to “keep immigrant students out of Proctor High School.”
Wendy Lecker, a senior attorney with The Education Law Center, a legal and policy advocacy firm focused on equal educational opportunity, is also co-counsel for the plaintiffs in the Maisto case. Between the Foundation Aid Formula and other state funding, Lecker questions the logic behind the latest complaint from the attorney general.
“If it turns out that this underfunding was a cause of any failure on the part of Utica to provide services (if that all bears out),” Lecker said, “then one wonders how the state could have the gall to sue the school district that the state itself deprived of funds.”
As the fifth-poorest district in the state, the population of Utica City School District - heavy with refugee and English as a Second Language (ESL) students - adds even more complexity to the lawsuits.
The attorney general lawsuit offers the details. The city’s population is 60,000, of which 18 percent were born outside of the United States. More than a quarter of this population speaks a foreign language, and “the area served by the District has one of the largest proportions of limited English proficient households in New York, with over one in ten households having no member over the age of 14 who speaks English ‘very well’.”
Like all of New York’s school districts, Utica is expected to produce a constitutionally sound basic education. Based on the precedent set by the ruling in Campaign for Fiscal Eqaulity (CFE) vs. New York, this means that outputs (test scores, graduation rates and dropout rates) as well as inputs (teachers, staff and facilities) must be sufficient. If both are proven insufficient and a connection between these elements and a lack of funding exists, a sound basic education has been denied.
As the lawsuits persist and tensions rise, New York and Utica agree on the need for a better quality education for students. As stated in the Maisto lawsuit, in the plaintiff’s conclusion, “the state has explicitly conceded that the academic results - including test scores, graduation rates, and dropout rates - in all eight districts are inadequate and must improve.”
In the Maisto lawsuit, the eight cities are demanding funds that the state failed to provide under the Foundation Aid Formula, asking for a restoration in state aid totaling $255 million annually. The lawsuit was originally filed Oct. 30, 2008. The trial’s outcome will directly impact more than 50,000 students throughout the involved poverty-stricken districts, and has the potential to affect the future of districts in similar positions across New York.
At the core of this is the Foundation Aid Formula, which calculates the amount each district must spend to provide an adequate education, or reach a sound basic education (SBE) spending target. After calculating the SBE, New York then determines the share of that target that will be supported by the state and the share to be funded by taxes. Maisto districts are arguing that the formula fails to accommodate proper funding for high-need districts, which differ from New York’s more affluent districts.
“The state has said in court that foundation aid will be given based on need, but they haven’t done anything about it,” Marcou-O’Malley said.
Marcou-O’Malley added that the school districts are in a position in which they are “essentially crippled.”
The following is an overview of the three lawsuits that currently involve the Utica City School District:
NYCLU Lawsuit: Refugees Demand A Better Education
Patrick Tuyizere is an 18-year-old refugee from Rwanda. Born in a refugee camp and raised there for 17 years, he and his family were finally able to move to the United States, eventually settling in Utica.
Tuyizere has been enrolled in APPLE, an alternative education program, since December 2014 and has a dream of becoming a doctor. Through his testimony, he has displayed frustration with the program’s education system. Tuyizere has described APPLE’s services as “limited” - lacking in science courses and the potential to receive a high school diploma - essential factors in accomplishing his goal.
He and five other refugees, along with a class of similar immigrant students, are plaintiffs in the NYCLU class-action lawsuit filed April 23, 2015. They allege that Proctor High School practices a policy that diverts ESL students ages 17 and older to “inadequate alternative programs” (APPLE and Newcomer), segregating students and depriving them of the opportunity to graduate from high school.
Utica City School District Superintendent Bruce Karam responded to the lawsuit in an April 23, 2015, story in the Syracuse Post-Standard, stating the allegations were “totally unfounded and without merit.”
Attorney General Lawsuit: New York Critiques Utica City Schools
As the NYCLU suit unfolds and the Maisto case lingers after seven years of delays through New York’s court systems, a third lawsuit has been introduced. On Nov. 18, 2015, the attorney general filed a civil rights lawsuit against the district.
Most aspects of the attorney general’s lawsuit closely mirror claims made in the NYCLU case. The attorney general echoes the NYCLU plaintiffs in alleging that the district has “mandatorily diverted” immigrant students into alternative programs that are “unequal” to a high school education at Proctor.
The attorney general states that the district denies enrollment to immigrant students, claiming it failed to record information about their attempted enrollment in databases and did not conduct mandatory English language proficiency testing. The attorney general has also accused the district of being discriminatory, “segregating Affected Immigrant Students from the general student population at Proctor” and violating the law by requesting immigrant documents. The lawsuit asserts that the district’s intentions, through enforced policy, are to “keep immigrant students out of Proctor High School.”
“School districts cannot place arbitrary impediments and barriers in the way of immigrants and refugees who have struggled to achieve a better life for themselves and their families,” Schneiderman said.
In a Nov. 17, 2015, New York Times story, the district’s lawyer, Donald Gerace, affirmed that Utica schools “never refused to enroll any students,” adding that at least 220 students at Proctor High School are English Language Learners (ELL), and had enrolled when they were 17 or older.
Maisto Lawsuit: Eight Small City Districts Demand More Funding
New York State Assemblyman Anthony Brindisi (D - Utica, 119th) said that the attorney general’s lawsuit is in response to Utica’s participation in the Maisto case. Each of the seven remaining districts declined comment when asked about the Maisto suit and the quality of education for their ESL students.
The Maisto ruling is expected in Spring 2016, providing an answer to the seven-year-old request by smaller, urban districts for a proportionate funding formula. The Utica City School District, a reflection of an increasingly diverse city, is an outlier in the Maisto case given its refugee and ESL population.
The second-most diverse city in the suit is Mount Vernon, with 23.1 percent of its population speaking languages other than English and 33.4 percent of its population foreign.
Yet, Utica is the only district out of eight Maisto plaintiffs to face alleged retaliation.
Amanda Paladino can be reached at email@example.com
Lorraine Eady and her four students, all refugees from Thailand, sit huddled around a table. Clocks, dictionaries, calendars and an English alphabet listing adorn the room. The environment is welcoming and laughter and learning fills the classroom.
“How do you say 11:45?” she asks, showing the time on a clock.
“Quarter after!” a student calls out.
“No, 11:45,” she says slowly and reassuringly.
“Quarter…of?” a student responds.
“Yes, good job, Hor Ron!” Eady exclaims.
This scene takes place on a Wednesday morning at the Newcomer program, an English as a Second Language (ESL) intensive classroom housed at the Mohawk Valley Resource Center for Refugees (MVRCR). What is unique about Eady’s four students is their age - all are older than 18.
A lawsuit filed by the NYCLU in April, 2015 claims that, for years, the Utica City School District rejected refugee students aged 17-20, asserting they would not be able to successfully complete high school and diverted them to the Newcomer Program. The students in the Newcomer Program fall into another category - older than average high schoolers and on the cusp of full-time working age.
Since the MVRCR took over the program in early 2014 from the district, it has served around 100 newly arrived refugees, helping them make the transition to the United States. Although some students enter the program knowing some English, many are completely unfamiliar with the country, the culture or even a classroom setting. The Newcomer Program attempted to ease that transition, allowing for a classroom devoid of the pressure of tests and papers.
A year ago, there were 30 students in the program. On that mid-November morning, there are just four. The NYCLU lawsuit put pressure on the district, and since then, according to Eady, the Utica City School District is allowing all prospective students to attend high school.
“They have to,” she says. “By law, they have to.”
Eady is referencing the fact that in New York State, students are eligible to attend public high school up until the age of 21.
Because more refugee students are now enrolling at Proctor High School, and the grant that financed the Newcomer Program has expired, the classroom closed its doors for good on Nov. 24.
Inside the Classroom
The Newcomer Program does not specifically lead to any degree or certification. Rather, it focuses on “survival English,” as students learn the basics of the language, such as greetings, manners, telling time and what they need to do to earn jobs.
Students come from all backgrounds, all with different experiences. Eh Ka Lue Taw, the class veteran, has been in the United States since July. Eh Dah, the most recent student and a Karen speaker, arrived in late October.
Another student, Hor Ron, is the most talkative of the group. The 19-year-old, who speaks Burmese, has spent nearly all of his life in the Mae La Refugee Camp in Thailand. He described being inside the camp and not being let out.
Hor Ron has been in the United States four months and has enjoyed his time at the Newcomer Program, where he has learned basic English and made friends, like the fourth student, 21-year-old Oby Too La.
“I like it a lot,” Hor Ron says. “Thailand is not safe. Too much fighting. People die from the bombs.”
Eh Ka, perhaps the best English speaker of the group, says his favorite part of being in the United States is learning English. Before arriving in Utica, he spent 17 years in a refugee camp. He wants to be a police officer in the U.S., and Eady says she tailors her teaching to students’ specific interests.
“So [Eh Ka] is going to need to know English,” Eady says. “He’s going to have to get his G.E.D. He’s going to have to do all those steps. So his is really academic. But he’s also very new, so he needs to know, you know, ‘Can I use the bathroom?’, ‘Nice to meet you,’ ‘Today is Tuesday.’”
The class, which appeared very eager to learn English, met five days a week, year-round. Eady took the group on numerous field trips to courthouses, Home Depot and parks, among other places. These field trips took place to help integrate the students into their new American culture, improving their English in the process.
The Newcomer Program hosted a party on November 24, the program’s final day, to celebrate with all those who have gone on to bigger and better things.
“A lot of them have gone so many different ways, and different directions, we thought before this closes, let’s get everybody together,” Eady says.
Many students came to visit, but with the Newcomer Program closing, it might have been the last opportunity for some of these students to see each other before they go their separate ways.
An Ideal Newcomer Program?
The Newcomer Program was funded and operated by the Utica City School District until 2013, when the district funding issue came to a head, and, as Eady says, the Newcomer Program “was lost in the shuffle.” The program was picked up by the MVRCR in 2014, under a grant from the Office for New Americans.
Though Eady is appreciative of the grant and the services it was able to provide, she says an ideal program integrates Newcomer students with regular high school students to an extent.
“This is one grant, and it’s great, but then the other piece is to be a Newcomer program, it’s supposed to be at the high school,” Eady explains. “They’re not supposed to be separated. And this program has always been separate from the high school.”
As the MVRCR’s Newcomer Program was constructed, students could remain in the program until they turned 21. Eady says it is ideally a one-year integrated program.
“The way a legitimate Newcomer program would work, would be, they would come in for a year,” she says. “They have a year in the Newcomer Program, and while they’re learning intense English, and they’re in an intense English class, they’re also going to art, music, gym, playing sports, going to lunch with other students. You know, they’re not separate from the population.”
According to Eady, even before the district stopped funding the program in 2013, it was housed at the administration building and then later on Washington Street, about three miles from Proctor High School.
Newcomer programs are spread across New York State and each is unique in structure and funding, leading to further debate about the ideal blueprint. Director of the ESL program at Binghamton University, Jennifer Brondell, says that there are pros and cons regarding a separate Newcomer program.
“I think a possible problem with a Newcomer Program would be cutting students off from experiencing and familiarizing themselves with American culture, specifically, the culture of their age group,” she says. “At the same time, it could be said that they will acculturate no matter what living in the U.S., and working on their English in a focused way will get them settled faster.”
According to Eady, in November 2014, a program was proposed where Newcomer students would be a given a school with a path to a G.E.D. (now called a High School Equivalency, or H.S.E.) diploma. Dana Hubbard, the program coordinator for the Office for New Americans, worked with Mohawk Valley Community College (MVCC), the Utica City School District and BOCES to set up a program where students would receive Newcomer English at the Refugee Center before being sent to an H.S.E. program at BOCES.
According to Eady, MVCC would provide the teachers, the school district would provide bussing, lunch and breakfast and BOCES would provide the classroom. Along with the Refugee Center, plans were in place for those entities to make sure students were in the places they needed to be, and had a path toward success.
“And then two administrators from Utica pulled out on that Friday before it was going to begin,” Eady says. “So that was devastating.”
While the four students in the Newcomer Program all have the ability to attend Proctor High School as the Newcomer Program folds, only Eh Dah has expressed any interest in that idea.
Most do not want to attend high school, noting that they are between 19 and 21 years old and the prospects of graduating do not seem likely.
Following the closure of the Newcomer Program, all four students began attending the Adult Learning Center, also located at the MVRCR, but run by the district. Similar to the Newcomer Program, the Adult Learning Center teaches survival English.
According to Oby Too La, all four students will begin an H.S.E. program on Jan. 4 with BOCES.
Oby Too La does not have a specific field he would like to work in, but wants to continue his education, especially learning how to speak and write in English.
While still enrolled in the Newcomer Program, the students mentioned working with the Mohawk Valley Community College Education Opportunity Center. According to its website, the center’s goal is “to work with individuals and their families to overcome barriers and successfully reach their educational goals.”
The director of the Education Center, Sarah Lam, says the center assists students throughout the entire process, from looking for a school or degree program that is the right fit, all the way through scheduling classes.
Students like Eh Ka, who want to obtain professional careers like being a police officer, must receive this formal education to succeed.
Lam says that the program works with refugees, but understands that they are often at different levels and have different goals.
“We work to help them achieve whatever goals they may have,” Lam says. “We have a credit-bearing ESL program on campus, and we are starting a non-credit ESL program for those who don’t have any kind of a high school diploma but want to improve their English skills and work toward a high school equivalency diploma.”
During an interview with Eady, a former Newcomer student, Ku Say, walks into the room. He started his H.S.E. program in January, and is on track to earn that degree in the near future.
The Newcomer Program, according to Eady, helped prepare him.
One Size Does Not Fit All
If the Utica City School District was in fact denying students entrance into high school, as the lawsuit alleges, then the school district was also denying these refugee students a choice about their education, Eady says.
“[The students] need to have the choice,” Eady says. “And you can’t just say to someone that’s never been in a high school, ‘What do you want?’ They don’t know what the American high school is. They don’t know what the testing system is like here. They need to know. They need to be educated.”
She mentioned that the Refugee Center has academic coaches who can help students understand what they are getting themselves into, and help them make decisions that best suit their goals.
Sarah Davis, an English as a New Language teacher in the Syracuse City School District, about an hour’s drive from Utica, says that there is no “one-size-fits-all” concept for what is best for 17-21 year-olds who need ESL instruction.
She argues that some are best served by attending traditional high school with ESL support, while others are better off in a Newcomer program with a pathway to an H.S.E. degree.
“I would think that ideally, both options would be available to students,” she says. “Student goals and backgrounds are going to determine what is the best way to educate someone.”
Davis sees the same obstacles as Eady.
“The challenge is in communicating choices and best matching students to programs,” Davis says. “It is important to routinely monitor students and programs to be sure the fit is correct and students are progressing towards their goals.”
As the Newcomer Program ends, the four students that Eady cares about have lost an option. They cannot finish their instruction in the Newcomer Program.
With the Utica City School District named in three lawsuits, grant funding drying up and another wave of refugees anticipated in the near future, children who are forced to leave their native country are still searching for a permanent home when it comes to their education in Utica.
“No one’s come up with the answer. People have come up with the answer,” Eady says, changing her train of thought mid-sentence. “But no one’s actually followed through with a solution for these students.”
Matt Rogers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Overview: Six refugees, along with a class of similar immigrant students, are plaintiffs in the NYCLU class-action lawsuit filed April 23, 2015. They allege that Proctor High School practices a policy that diverts ESL students ages 17 and older to “inadequate alternative programs” (APPLE and Newcomer), segregating students and depriving them of the opportunity to graduate from high school.
ATTORNEY GENERAL LAWSUIT
Overview: The attorney general states that the district denies immigrant students, claiming it failed to record information about their attempted enrollment in databases and did not conduct mandatory English language proficiency testing. The attorney general has also accused the district of being discriminatory, “segregating Affected Immigrant Students from the general student population at Proctor” and violating the law by requesting immigrant documents.
MAISTO “SMALL CITIES” LAWSUIT
Overview: In the Maisto lawsuit, the eight cities are demanding funds that the state failed to provide under the Foundation Aid Formula, asking for a restoration in state aid totaling $255 million annually. The lawsuit was originally filed Oct. 30, 2008. The trial’s outcome will directly impact more than 50,000 students throughout the involved poverty-stricken districts, and has the potential to affect the future of districts in similar positions across New York.
The project “ESL In Utica” was produced as part of Utica College’s Watchdog Reporting journalism course.
The team spent three months reporting the stories you see here. The students interviewed dozens of people, pored over lawsuits, created data visualizations and filed Freedom of Information requests.
If you have more information on the topic or have questions about the project, please e-mail the course’s professor, Brett Orzechowski.