New York City needs to overhaul the way it screens and labels immigrant students who speak little English and may have missed years of school, according to a new report by Advocates for Children.
Since 2003, the city has handed out over $19 million to 129 different schools to help them serve students with interrupted formal education, known as SIFE. Despite the grant money, AFC reports that too few of these students are identified — many wind up wrongly classified as needing special education — and those who are still find themselves placed in schools where no one on staff is trained to help them.
Though SIFE students fall under the umbrella group of English language learners, they experience problems in school that other immigrant or non-English speaking students don’t. When Isabel, one of the 12 students profiled in the report, moved with her family to New York at age 12, she was the age of most sixth graders, so the DOE put her in a sixth-grade bilingual class. But Isabel had never attended school before, she spoke a then-unwritten language, and knew neither English or Spanish. She was lost, and by age 15, she had only the literacy skills of a kindergartner. AFC lobbied for her to be transferred to a high school for international students, but many SIFE students who don’t find the right school end up dropping out.
According to the report, the Department of Education needs to rethink its entire citywide strategy for helping SIFE students. This would include replacing single-year grants with multi-year ones, offering more training for teachers on how to identify SIFE students, and translating the test that’s used to label these students into languages other than Spanish.
The report also suggests that SIFE students should have an extended graduation timeline.
“Putting pressure on schools to graduate SIFE in four or five years may also create disincentives for schools to serve SIFE in the first place,” the report states.
The DOE says its special education overhaul will cause all schools to become able to meet the needs of SIFE students.
“We’re proud of the work we have done to bring national attention to Students with Interrupted Formal Education by improving identification, and funding new research and innovative programs,” said DOE spokesman Matt Mittenthal in a statement.
“While we are still reviewing the report and plan to submit our response shortly, we believe that its conclusions rely on anecdotes, unconfirmed accounts from unnamed schools, and misuse of data.”