East Ramapo launches 'Newcomers Academy' as influx of English learners squeezes schools

East Ramapo launches 'Newcomers Academy' as influx of English learners squeezes schools

Updated: 1 month, 23 days, 19 hours, 57 minutes, 50 seconds ago

East Ramapo launches 'Newcomers Academy' as influx of English learners squeezes schoolsplay

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East Ramapo Central School District opens Newcomer's Academy amid influx of English learners

East Ramapo Central School District opens Newcomer's Academy amid influx of English learners

Rockland/Westchester Journal News

POMONA - Between July and mid-October, East Ramapo officials documented 938 new students coming to the school district − all of them English language learners and many recent immigrants. Two-thirds were high school age.

But there were no seats left in classes at Ramapo and Spring Valley High School.

By the end of September, about 26 students didn't have class schedules. By October, 50 teens were without schedules.

With no classes to go to, many didn't show up to school.

The district had to act fast, said Melissa Barrow, assistant superintendent for student programs, assessment and evaluation. "Once they sit at home, we lose them."

Within weeks, the district developed its Newcomers Academy, a standalone program housed in a wing of Pomona Middle School. It opened Nov. 1.

All Newcomers Academy students, although they range in age, are considered to be ninth-graders. Students can transfer to one of the district's two high schools if they can provide transcripts from their original countries or are assessed and placed in a different grade. Many will stay in the program at Pomona and then matriculate into the next grade at Ramapo or Spring Valley high school, whichever is their home school.

Many students, amid immigration and other upheaval, have had interrupted schooling, with gaps in formal education. Or they can't access transcripts.

"We're being very specific," Barrow said of placing students in the right place at the right time for them.

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Barrow recalled a student from Ukraine explaining that he had no access to education records. "All records were destroyed. He said his house doesn't exist anymore."

While a variety of languages are spoken by the students in the academy, 95% are Spanish speaking, Barrow said.

The Village of Spring Valley, which makes up a large portion of the district, has long been a newcomer community. In recent years, its population has shifted from residents with Haitian roots to those from Latin America.

The influx of high school age students with different levels of education presents a short-term dilemma for East Ramapo, but also points to a long-term pattern and challenge.

Since 2020-2021, the public-school population has increased nearly 14%, based on East Ramapo Superintendent Clarence Ellis' estimates that this year's enrollment is around 10,500 students.

Barrow said she couldn't determine the district's future needs, but the Newcomers Academy is clearly needed now.

"We had three new students this week," she said during a classroom visit, "and it's Tuesday."

In New York state, students can attend public schools until the age of 21.

At risk for dropping out

Advocates have said that the growing population of Latino students has been vulnerable for years, especially English language learners. According to 2020-2021 state data, nearly 70% of East Ramapo's public-school students were Latino and 43% English language learners.

At the beginning of the 2020-2021 school year, the district reported that a majority of its students were considered "chronically absent" or "at risk" as thousands of kids still lacked school-provided Chromebooks to participate in remote learning.

East Ramapo's graduation rates are the lowest in the county and dropout rates, especially among Latino students, are high.

The district, the most fiscally strained in the state, educates more public-school kids than any other in the county. It also provides mandated services, including transportation, for three times as many private-school children. The school board, run by majorities of men who are seen as favoring the private-school community that send their kids to yeshivas, has been slammed by activists for failing to seriously address the needs of public-school kids.

Barrow told school board members at a Nov. 15 meeting that the separate campus for English language learners provides "a sense of community."

Students are also connected in various ways to the high school that they will eventually attend. The teens follow a high school bell schedule so they can participate in extracurricular activities. And personnel from the high schools visit the academy often.

Spring Valley High School Assistant Principal Jennifer Martin stops by the Pomona campus every other week. "They really do belong to their high schools," she said.

About a third of Newcomers Academy students will go to Ramapo and two-thirds to Spring Valley High.

New staff, new experience

Other districts with large immigrant populations, like Buffalo and New York City, have had similar programs. Rockland and Dutchess BOCES host newcomer programs that help support students who have experienced interrupted education in their home countries.

Barrow said creating East Ramapo's own program was more cost-effective for the district than using the Rockland BOCES program, which offers classroom and technical education training for ELL students who want it.

The district did not provide a breakdown of costs for the program, which included using existing building space and hiring teaching staff.

To staff the program, Barrow said they found newly minted certified teachers. For many, this is their first teaching experience and most are monolingual.

The instruction is subject based, Barrow said, with English taught through the content.

The students and teachers are doing well with the method, Barrow said. In fact, she said, even though the district has started using Microsoft Translator for Education, the kids and the staff rarely use it. "Our students are so comfortable," she said.

"This is a safe place to make mistakes," Barrow said. "We do that gently here."

Math teacher Matthew Stevens on Tuesday was going from desk to desk, checking in with students as they worked. His students were learning everything from fractions to algebra, depending on their proficiency levels. "They're supporting each other," he said, as one student leaned over to help another.

Stevens had one year of instruction under his belt, teaching eighth-grade math in the Bronx. Teaching multiple levels of math in one class period is challenging, he said, but helping the kids at the Newcomers Academy has been rewarding.

Stevens gave instructions in English with a smattering of Spanish. He said that he didn't speak Spanish, but "I'm putting in the work to learn to communicate with the kids," just like the students are doing as they learn English.

Francisco Mateo, 15, said he enjoyed the program. With translation help from school community liaison Zoraida Arroyo, Mateo said he had recently come to New York from El Salvador with his mom because they had family in Spring Valley who could help them.

Nancy Cutler writes about People & Policy. Follow her on Twitter at @nancyrockland. 

Click here for her latest stories.

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