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April 8th, 2010
11:00 AM ET

NY high school drives immigrant students to success

[cnn-photo-caption image= caption="Alfredo Duque, 17, arrived to the U.S. three years ago from Mexico. After his graduation from Newcomers High School, he will move to Wisconsin to attend Lawrence University."]

By Elizabeth Nunez, CNN

(CNN) – They say the miracle can be witnessed in the hallways: Teenagers who struggle to pronounce words like “toothbrush” in their Level 1 language classes are heard a few months later chatting in fluent English in the winding corridors of Newcomers Public High School in Long Island City, Queens.

Alfredo Duque, 17, was one of them. When he arrived to the United States three years ago from Guerrero, Mexico to live with his aunt and uncle in Queens, he enrolled at the school. After his graduation this coming June, he will move to Wisconsin to attend Lawrence University with a Posse Scholarship to cover all of his tuition.

Stories like his are not uncommon at the school. Newcomers is devoted exclusively to teaching immigrant students who have arrived to the United States within a year or less of enrolling. Half of them come from Latin American countries, one quarter from China and the rest from over 40 countries, mostly in Southeast Asia, Africa and Eastern Europe.

An 'A' in any language Video

The students speak little or no English and yet Newcomers sends 90 percent of its graduating seniors to college, and at least a third of them win some kind of scholarship.

Senior Susandi Htut, from Burma, is being considered for a Torch Scholarship at Northeastern University in Boston. Susandi, 19, arrived to the United States with her mom and two younger brothers in 2006 to join her father, who works as a nurse technician at Rikers Island prison health care service.

While she waits to hear from Northeastern, Bard College has already given her a partial scholarship. If selected, Susandi, who is torn between majoring in biology or political science, says she will be first in her family to attend university.

Accomplishments like these helped Newcomers reach the 6th place in US World and News Report’s list of top 100 high schools in the country in 2009.

Principal Orlando Sarmiento, an immigrant from Colombia himself, says this success hinges on many factors. Newcomers was founded in 1995 with a mission and curriculum focused on the needs of immigrants. It works with parents to help them support the students with their coursework and partners with community-based organizations where they go for internships and outreach work.

The school carefully selects teachers trained in their subjects as well as in English as a Second Language instruction. Some of them are immigrants too and go on to become students’ mentors.

Ms. Sunghee Byun, a history teacher from South Korea, helped Bangladeshi Shantanu Roy when he first arrived without speaking a word of English. Shantanu failed her class, but Ms. Byun talked to his mother at a parent-teacher conference and suggested they try tutoring.

Hours of work and extracurricular activities paid off last fall when Shantanu was one of 12 students in New York City who attended the high-level Summit on Climate Change at the United Nations and met First Lady Michelle Obama. Shantanu says the school’s environment of teachers and students forms a safety net to their success.

“We’re not scared of each other, not scared of speaking English, none of us speaks it,” he says with an almost imperceptible accent.

For Sarmiento, the language barrier is an opportunity in disguise.

“Yes, initially the fact that they don’t speak English is a challenge, but they’re ahead because most people are not bilingual.”

When the time for college application rolls by, low English SAT scores are buttressed with profiles brimming with extracurricular activities from music to sports to hours of community service and Advanced Placement courses.

Blanca Izaguirre, one of Newcomers college counselors, says that even the undocumented students, which make up about 35 to 40 percent of each year’s graduating class, are encouraged to get an education

“The American Dream is about the struggle and the success of the underdog.”

The school, which includes music and visual arts in its curriculum, has been struggling to keep all its activities amidst the recession. It has cut programs for resident artists who used to visit the students, some professional development courses and scaled back on field trips around the city.

So far, Sarmiento says eight teachers have left, including a highly regarded arts instructor who was one of the founding members of the school.

“Some of them it was because of the recession, but some of them was also because the number of immigrants coming to the school was declining,” Sarmiento explained.

Finances have an impact on the students' future too.

Shantanu, who works at a Rite Aid drugstore, dreams of studying international affairs and has applied to CUNY, SUNY and Pace University, among others.

"I can't afford to pay for college with the money I make," he says, so his decision will depend on which school gives him more financial aid.

So far, Shantanu has received a $44,000 scholarship from Pace, but he might end up going to South Korea, where a college specialized in science has offered him full tuition and monthly allowances.

It’s an opportunity he also found thanks to Ms. Byun.

Filed under: Living
soundoff (35 Responses)
  1. Teacher

    Grammatical correction to the author/ one never arrives to a place, arrive is followed by in or at.

    April 17, 2010 at 9:48 am |
  2. HernandezUSA

    Thank you CNN

    For showing how Anti-American you are!

    For allowing the open-border groups tell lies about American youth.

    For not talking about our own American children and their great achievements.

    April 10, 2010 at 10:00 pm |
  3. Katie Donovan

    Thank you so much CNN for publishing this article! It's very heartening to read about a school that is doing great things for immigrant students. I teach English as a second language in New York City and it is inspiring to see a school that considers these students a top priority. I'd like to know if there are any schools like this in the Carolinas; schools doing a remarkable job getting immigrant students into college.

    April 10, 2010 at 2:41 pm |
  4. Nader

    Well would you look that, very glad these immigrant students have a place to show how well they can absorb knowledge. To often the immigrant population is looked at as a burden in this county, when in fact they are what makes makes this country tick. Good luck Alfredo and anyone currently attending Newcomers.

    April 10, 2010 at 1:47 pm |
  5. Kam

    As I say it over, those who say it can't be done shouldn't interrupt those who are already doing. Using tried and true methods about ESL and bilingual education these students are able to become fluent in English in a few months.

    I have never understood why we have whole entire fields dedicated to the way people learn language (Linguistics, Second Language Acquisition ) which get ignored when it comes time to making decisions on how to get Non-English speakers to learn.

    I bet if they used these methods at a younger age they would probably get average SAT scores by high school.

    April 10, 2010 at 1:39 pm |
  6. giantcrab

    The key to being a good student is not the school, but is the family of the student. Immigrants, who have come so far from their countries to this country tend to have families that are very strong. If the head of the family was so dedicated to bringing his family to this country then they tend to put pressure on the kids to do as well as they can. This is why I cant stand it when the government is always trying to spend more money on schools, when that isnt going to help. If you want to improve school then get the parents of the kids to understand that they are the ones that have to make sure the kid as the resources to being a good student.

    April 10, 2010 at 1:38 pm |
  7. bill

    Excellent! Education at its best.

    April 10, 2010 at 1:32 pm |
  8. Neutralizer

    Children of immigrants succeed and get "A" due to the fact education is instilled in their minds without it they can't get a good job. Education opens door to success, a better life in the future. While kids in USA doesn't take education seriously, children especially from third world countries knew education is their bread and butter in the future.

    If you notice Asian kids excel in Math and Science, their parents are their best teachers; they knew math and science is very important whatever degree you want to take in college. Their high school education in Asia would beat American style of education; in Asian schools, their subjects is loaded in Math and science while in USA it is loaded with feel good subjects. It's not a surprise a lot of kids that graduated in college when its time for them to apply for a job; between that person and an Asian they would hire an Asian applicant.

    April 10, 2010 at 1:27 pm |

    This is such a heart warming story. Immigrants, given the chance, can achieve their dreams. Hoepfully the Obama adminstration will pass the Dream Act and allow more immigrants to prosper in this great country

    April 10, 2010 at 1:18 pm |
  10. SeaknightRex

    Now why can't all schools do this in our education system?

    April 10, 2010 at 1:16 pm |
  11. Ron Gay

    Foreign students take their education seriously . They are focused, they respect authority , in this case teachers and school administrator . There is little chaos in that high school i am sure . That's in part why other high schools need to copy from this high school for new comers ...

    April 10, 2010 at 1:15 pm |
  12. Tom

    What does that tell you about the work ethic and parenting of our native new yorkers. For that matter, the work ethic and parenting of all americans. We are all lazy and want things handed to us. Nobody is willing to work hard to get what they want anymore. They graduate at double the rate and they can barely speak english to start the year. That is pitiful and embarrassing for us americans. Almost ashamed

    April 10, 2010 at 1:13 pm |
  13. Fox Blows

    It is indeed a pity when all kids are in USA are not afforded the opportinities given to immigrants.

    Why the double standard? Why cant Frank, Susie, or John from Appleton or Des Moines get some free $$$ for thier tuition?

    April 10, 2010 at 1:13 pm |
  14. Fox Blows

    Funny, how for citizens our high schools are getting cuts. Our district is now firing ALL couselors.

    College? Average citizen has to PAY IT OR BORROW all tuition.

    Where is the equal opportunity for our citizens?

    April 10, 2010 at 1:11 pm |
  15. SAM

    Coming from an immigrant family myself, it's great to see these kids excel through hard work, and living the American dream. I hope this school is able to continue its work with the impact of the current economic climate.

    April 10, 2010 at 1:11 pm |
  16. Maria

    What a wonderful school!!!! As an ESL educator I applaude your commitment to speakers of other languages! They have so much to offer! I am glad to see that it is being recognized, reinforced and appreciated! Keep up the great work!

    April 10, 2010 at 1:09 pm |
  17. Sharon Walters

    What a wonderful story, why can't we use this as a basis for educating all of our struggling children. I only hope that when my little boy is ready for school we can find him a place that is so filled with love and dedication as this school.

    April 10, 2010 at 1:08 pm |
  18. BCW

    It is heart warming to hear of school success stories.

    Too Bad California public schools are so poorly funded and poorly run.

    Los Angeles schools are CUTTING school teaching days and their children are failing to learn the basics of language and math. It is an embarrassment that our rich country is falling behind in education.

    April 10, 2010 at 1:02 pm |
  19. Nick

    It's amazing what properly motivated students can do. So why can't we do this among our own students?

    Oh right, because they are raised by the TV, weened on the Playstation, and their idea of torture is being "forced" to read something that has more than 5 pages.

    April 10, 2010 at 1:00 pm |
  20. Marie King

    My question on this subject is: How is this school funded? Apparently the immigrant families don't have the money for the amount of tuition in a private institution. The name of this high school, "Newcomers PUBLIC" implies that it might receive funding from the State or Federal government. If that is the case, I would strongly object to the enrollment of "35 to 40 per cent" undocumented (aka illegal alien) students being accepted into that school, especially in these hard economic times when some of our American young people cannot get financial support for their college educations.

    April 10, 2010 at 12:58 pm |
  21. abby

    great, lets educate other countries' kids but not our own. I make too much for my son to get grants but too little to afford college. He'll have to get loans and take on debt but these guys go for free. Let's hear it for America!

    April 10, 2010 at 12:58 pm |
  22. Jeff

    I wonder if the "2 to 1" college entry statistic accounts for the under-represented minority status and diversity acceptance goals. I suspect not. I make no argument that those programs are inappropriate or wrong, quite the opposite in fact, I am huge proponent of those programs. Any statistic that does not account for diversity goals however is misleading. Many english as a first language students that are denied admission to college have higher or equal admissions numbers to the english as a second language students due to diversity goals, perhaps at a rate of much greater than 2 to 1. It's something to think about in any event.

    April 10, 2010 at 12:57 pm |
  23. Martin B.

    But for students born here...nothing.

    April 10, 2010 at 12:57 pm |
  24. Jim Schoeffler

    More benefits for immigrants (many of whom probably came over illegally) while the natural born citizens of this "great society" struggle with 30 year old textbooks and schools that are falling apart. How many of them will get scholarships for their hard work? And how many Mexicans will get their tuition paid by our taxes? Ken Anselment, you can go to hell.

    April 10, 2010 at 12:57 pm |
  25. choke donkeys

    Im glad to see foreign students getting full ride scholarships as freshmen, where as my student Loans as a senior have gotten reduced so much that I can not afford to finish this year. Thats awesome!

    April 10, 2010 at 12:56 pm |
  26. Janet

    As much as anything I expect it is because these students worked hard to reach America and WANT to learn, unlike a somewhat large portion of today's privileged American-born youth, who grew up with a sense of entitlement. Kids from other countries weren't raised with the "everybody gets a medal/there are no losers" mentality.

    I'll bet if you compared the following totals between these kids and American-born youth, there'd be no contest: 1) hours spent studying, 2) the time put into extracurricular activities college boards find compelling.

    April 10, 2010 at 12:52 pm |
  27. Carlos Hernandez

    This is a great story, I wish the best succes to this outstanding school and to the participants who take advantage of the opportunity, there is no doubt they will become great contributors to our society. Please keep it up.

    April 10, 2010 at 12:50 pm |
  28. FD

    I arrived in the US at the age of 10 in the early 60s. My parents wanted me to attend a parochial school, but the nuns there suggested I attend a public school for one semester while I picked up English. This was a true immersion course since there were no bilingual education programs then. Because of my previous good grades and educational background, the public school system placed me one grade ahead.

    By the end of the semester, I was speaking English like a native and was accepted into the parochial school. At the end of the school year I won the school's spelling bee.

    This goes to show that bilingual education DOES NOT work. All it does is create a class of children who never learn English properly and who lose their native language. This leaves them at an economic disadvantage as adults.

    April 10, 2010 at 12:47 pm |
  29. hillcoguy

    Nothing succeds like success! ;o)

    April 10, 2010 at 12:45 pm |
  30. Alex

    That is a great example of how you can achieve the American dream with drive, focus, and determination. Good luck to the future.

    April 10, 2010 at 12:44 pm |
  31. Julia

    My university not only gave admissions priority to foreign students(even those who attended high school in the United States) it often paid them a living stipend in addition to a full scholarship. The success of these students could have far less to do with their intelligence, and more to do with their nationality.

    April 10, 2010 at 12:43 pm |

    All schools in America need to learn from Newcomers. Just awesome!

    April 10, 2010 at 12:40 pm |
  33. Erika

    Congratulations to this great students, best of luck!!!!!!

    April 10, 2010 at 12:39 pm |
  34. Ken Anselment

    We can't wait to see Alfredo at Lawrence this fall! We're very fortunate to have him with us.
    Ken Anselment
    Director of Admissions
    Lawrence University
    Appleton, Wisconsin

    April 8, 2010 at 2:05 pm |