The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation has announced the Gwinnett County, Ga., school district as the winner of the 2010 Broad Prize, which includes $1 million for student scholarships.
“Gwinnett County has demonstrated that an unwavering focus across a school system by every member of the district and the community can lead to steady student improvement and achievement,” said Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said at the announcement on Oct. 19. “Districts across the country should look to Gwinnett County as an example of what is possible when adults put their interests aside and focus on students.”
The Broad Foundation will award $250,000 for scholarships to each of the four other finalistsCharlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in North Carolina; Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland; and the Socorro Independent School District and the Ysleta Independent School District, both in Texas.
According to the Broad Foundation, ore than half of Gwinnett’s students are African-American or Hispanic, and half are eligible for subsidized lunches.
American School Board Journal wrote about Gwinnett County’s efforts to educate its rapidly growing and diverse population of immigrant students in its Sept. 2008 Special Report on Immigration and Diversity. The story is featured below:
A Race Against Time
With well-organized stacks of student files and forms, Judy Schilling’s office bears the telltale signs of a high school counselor. A veteran in guiding students through transcripts, Schilling volunteered for one of Norcross High School’s most daunting assignments: navigating its diverse and growing population of English language learners (ELLs) toward graduation. Her job entails a sense of urgency that she deftly yet calmly describes as “a race against time.”
Time is a critical element for Norcross’ immigrant students to learn English, assimilate to a new culture, catch up with class work, and pass the numerous content exams required by both Georgia and the Gwinnett County school district to receive a diploma. Schilling must help these students overcome the major disadvantage of starting school at the secondary levelresearch clearly shows the earlier, the betterwithin the confines of a suburban district struggling to manage its growth.
With 2,800 students and a labyrinth of hallways and classrooms, Norcross High could be described as a microcosm of the immigration trend that’s swept Gwinnett County and the rest of the U.S. in the past two decades. The school’s student population, which was predominantly white in the early 1990s, has no racial majority; about 30 percent each are of white, black, and Hispanic origin and 10 percent are Asian. Last year, 423 Norcross students were classified as ELLs.
Norcross has won national praise for its International Baccalaureate program and other rigorous classes, and Principal Jonathan Patterson strives to increase the staff’s expectations for ELL students and educate them in the most challenging environments. Still, only 39 percent of Norcross’ ELL students graduate in four years, a figure that he calls “pretty terrible.”
Even within the success stories, some students are undocumented and can’t find legal employment, and many more will be unable to afford higher education, even if they are legal residents who qualify for in-state tuition and Georgia’s HOPE scholarship. One of Schilling’s dreaded tasks is telling students that, despite their hard work and perseverance, she can’t change their fate.
“We see talent and potential every day, and it saddens me to think that ends at high school,” Schilling says.
Dealing with enormous growth
In the South, Georgia has seen much larger numbers of new immigrants than most other states. And while Atlanta historically is considered a diverse city, it’s mainly in the sense of black and white. As the primary commercial hub of the Southeast, it has grown exponentially in recent decades, and that prosperity as well as a nearby refugee relocation center attracted newcomers from all points of the world.
The city’s growth has stretched its suburban boundaries farther and farther, recently making Gwinnett County one of the nation’s fastest growing areas and a mecca for immigrant groups. Hispanics were wooed by an abundance of construction jobs, Koreans bought homes in luxurious subdivisions, and Eastern Europeans opened restaurants and grocery stores. As the city’s traditional black-and-white segregation eased, African-American families also settled into Gwinnett’s suburban lifestyle.
The school district was largely unprepared for the new arrivals, some observers say. Gwinnett is criticized for building large, comprehensive high schools for efficiency, and the size and boundaries of Norcross have hindered its efforts to engage immigrant students and their parents. And staff members say local politics, which recently turned more hostile to immigrants, significantly impact the school’s actions.
Politics aside, the increase in new arrivals demands that schools provide an adequate education, or Southern states ultimately will face severe economic consequences, says Joseph Marks, the Southern Regional Education Board’s director of education data services.
“The groups that are growing the fastest are the groups where students historically have been less prepared, and either don’t attend college or don’t complete college,” he says. “The education system is going to have to do a lot better at preparing and encouraging these populations to do much better, or the educational attainment of the workforce would become stagnant, and that’s a historically unprecedented stall.”
Gwinnett saw its numbers of limited-English-proficient students jump from 575 in the 1990-91 school year to 19,409 in 2006-07, and the more recent arrivals often have a more basic education background, says Tricia Kennedy, Gwinnett’s assistant superintendent for instruction and curriculum.
“We have an increasing number of students coming to us as high school students who have gaps in their education,” she says. “We’re having to provide a lot of scaffolding to build in those gaps in learning.”
Skills in native language critical
By far the best indicator of whether new immigrants will succeed in high school is proficiency in reading, writing, and math in their native language, teachers and researchers agree.
“If they’re literate, we move much more quickly,” says Jeannette Butler, an ELL teacher at Norcross. “A lot of these kids work very hard and can make it to a higher-level curriculum.”
That may still take years. Butler estimates that a midlevel student, with average intelligence and moderate literacy in their home language, will be in ELL classes about seven years. Research shows it takes five to seven years to gain competency in English.
Nevertheless, Georgia requires high school students to take the district’s graduation exams after they have been enrolled for only one year, beginning in 10th grade. Norcross’ ELL students struggle to pass any of the seven required subjects, particularly the writing exam. Students may retake any failed exam as often as the tests are offered, but teachers say many become discouraged and may drop out after repeated failures.
Determining whether a student fails because of a lack of content knowledge or language difficulties is yet another challenge. Nationally, ELLs struggle to pass the growing number of exit exams required by states or districts. A 2005 survey of six states for the Center for Education Policy showed that the percentages of ELL students who passed graduation exams on the first try were significantly lower than all other subgroups, including students living in poverty.
The educational experiences of Gwinnett’s new immigrant students vary, from a 15-year-old Guatemalan boy who had left school in second grade and spoke only a local dialect to Hoang Nguyen, who came from Vietnam as a ninth-grader with credits for calculus and physics classes.
Speaking in newly acquired English, Nguyen says U.S. schools are easy for him, but many classmates are struggling or disengaged.
“Not all ESOL kids have the motivation to graduate, or they are scared or don’t have the courage to take on the classes,” says Nguyen, who planned to study computer science at Georgia State University this fall. “I go up to my friends and say, Are you going to graduate?’ They say,
Maybe,’ so I say, Why?’ And they say, Oh, it’s so hard, and I have to pass the tests.’”
Center for newcomers
Given the needs and complexities of educating immigrant students, the district opened its International Newcomer Center (INC) to decipher and translate foreign transcripts and find appropriate placements. The center, which recently extended its hours to meet increasing demand, employs translators, outreach specialists, and graduation coaches who sort through the new students’ academic transcripts and test for content knowledge and English acquisition. Now located in an administrative building, the center welcomes families with multilingual DVD programs that explain the district’s rules and expected behaviors, such as dress codes and policies for absences. Counselors then take families into private rooms for interviews and to review transcripts, and finally, the student takes subject-matter tests.
The center also works with refugee and family services centers to bring in translators for less-common languages.
INC director Victoria Webbert says placing a student is “an art, not a science,” and schools have discretion to change placements once a student acclimates. Often, she says, the staff tries to place students cautiously, as it’s more encouraging to be moved to a higher-level class than to be demoted.
Gwinnett has organized its ELL classes using a grid that factors in a student’s age, language acquisition, and content knowledge. The district also offers inclusive classes for students who have some English and significant content knowledge. The state requires all ELL classes to be taught in English, and most ELL teachers at Norcross do not speak a second language.
“You have to do a lot of rephrasing, and learn to say things in different ways,” says Norcross teacher Amy Crisp. Teachers in the ELL classes, which usually contain fewer than a dozen students, often communicate with gestures and pictures.
The school has tried numerous initiatives, some of which have been more successful than others, she says. An afterschool tutoring program faltered, but the teachers plan to give more intensive English and math instruction this year. The percentages of Norcross ESOL students passing the math and language arts components of the graduation exams increased slightly this year.
“There is hope,” Crisp says. “I believe things are working. It’s just the time factor that we’re up against.”
Unique needs and issues
After academics, Norcross must deal with the special needs of students who may not have come to the U.S. by choice and may be dealing with unique family and social issues.
Many students are caught between two cultures, wanting to assimilate to U.S. norms but feeling pressured to uphold their native culture and language. Some work to help their families pay bills or send money to relatives, and some serve as interpreters for their families, an act that becomes stressful when dealing with complicated legal or financial matters.
Depression and emotional issues are common, but not always recognized or addressed, teachers and counselors say. Another ongoing challenge is recognizing cultural differences and making efforts to draw in newcomers. For instance, teachers are urged to include references to different cultures in their work, and in some cases reference a student’s familysaying, for instance, “Your family would be proud of you”rather than individual praise.
Norcross students tend to gravitate toward cliques with the same cultural background. Some Hispanic students say they were pleased to find so many Spanish-speaking peers, but students with more unique backgrounds, such as Francious Aka, an Ivory Coast native who lived in Italy before arriving in Gwinnett, find it tougher to socialize.
Francisco Rivera, who moved to Georgia from Mexico when his father took a job selling farm equipment, says he’s made more friends because he speaks English. But he realized that could complicate relationships with his Hispanic friends and family members.
“I have a lot of American friends because I’m not afraid to speak English,” says Rivera, who plans to go to college or join the Air Force to become an engineer. “Some people from Mexico say I’m forgetting my heritage, but I’m in the United States.”
Gwinnett schools have encouraged immigrant students to share their experiences through extracurricular activitiesone high school has a mariachi band, another has a Latino student group. But extracurricular activities at Norcross pose more challenges. Many immigrant students hold jobs after school, and school buses are the only transportation option for most others because the suburban areas are so sprawling. Several after-school activities, including a girls’ club that encouraged self-esteem and discouraged pregnancy, disbanded because of low participation.
Efforts to engage parents through evening dinners and activities also have seen low turnout. Patterson, Norcross’ principal, is particularly concerned that, without an adequate education, too many of his students will continue a cycle of poverty.
“We can see that motivation is the key to everything, and that is the thing that is the most difficult to calculate,” he says.
Federal law prohibits schools from questioning citizenship status, but the staff at Norcross say immigrant students often let them know if they are undocumented. For instance, the counselors might recruit top students for plum work-study assignments but find that some don’t have Social Security numbers.
“It’s frustrating,” Patterson says. “Here we don’t ask; we just hear of situations where a kid is showing motivation and determination and effort to do well, and push themselves academically, but then they look at the economics of getting a higher education degree.”
Curbing the dropout rate
Several Southern states have turned hostile to illegal immigrants, adding to the national debate on whether undocumented students who have attended U.S. secondary schools should pay in-state tuition rates for higher education institutions.
The 1996 welfare reform law prohibited in-state rates, but some states sidestepped that requirement. Last year, Georgia’s legislature shot down a practice by the state’s Board of Regents and mandated undocumented students must pay out-of-state tuition.
In June, South Carolina adopted one of the most stringent measures, the Illegal Immigration Reform Act. One section of the law deems undocumented students ineligible to attend any public higher education institution in South Carolina and denies them scholarships, financial aid, and grants. And the North Carolina legislature is considering a measure that would bar undocumented students from attending its public community colleges.
The percentage of recent immigrants who drop out, though, is much higher than native-born students or students who arrived in the early elementary grades. Teen pregnancy is contributing to Norcross’ ELL dropout rate, and other dropouts were lured by jobs.
“Once you start making money, living a hair better, it’s hard to give that up,” Patterson notes.
Senior Liliana Gomez could be considered an “at-risk” student. Outside school, she works about 40 hours a week, including every weekend, at a clothing store. She came to Georgia at the request of her mother, who left her with her father after moving to the U.S. with a new husband.
In Mexico, Gomez enjoyed a middle-class lifestyle on her father’s farm. Gomez says she’s determined to graduate despite her academic struggles and personal hardships. She’s also motivated to learn English because, “I want to understand everything.”
People stereotype Mexicans as poor, she says, at the same time admitting her family is struggling. She may return to Mexico if her prospects do not improve.
“I really want to go to college, but I can’t. It’s too much money,” says Gomez, who hopes to graduate in 2009.
Schilling takes her hand. “Things change,” she says. “We have to hope.”
Afterward, Schilling admits there is little she can do for the many students in Gomez’s situation. “Sometimes we get hung up on statistics, but when you meet these people, it’s a whole different ballgame.”