Nearly a Quarter of Public School Students English Limited

Sleepy Hollow – In a follow up to last month’s article on immigrants and illegal housing, River Journal took a look at the challenges facing the local school district.

It is certainly a challenge considering that 23 percent of the students in the Public Schools of the Tarrytowns have limited English proficiency, according to Superintendent Dr.

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Graduate Franklin Pugo from Ecuador
(photo provided by T.U.F.S.D.)

Howard Smith. River Journal sat down with Smith for an in-depth interview and later spoke with Katharine St. Vincent, chair of the district’s ESL (English as a second language) department.

Since the district has a total of about 2,600 students, this means approximately 598 students face an uphill battle to graduate from Sleepy Hollow High School. Like everyone else, they must pass the New York State English Regents Exam as well as exams in other subject areas — all in a foreign tongue to them.

To help the students accomplish this, they have 15 ESL teachers on hand district-wide and they attend rigorous courses to get them up to speed.

According to St. Vincent, many of the students arrive in this country to join their mother and father after being separated for years and years. Their arrival isn’t planned to coincide with the school year; children arrive all year long.

"They show up whenever they show up and we take them," St. Vincent said. "We’ve had kids come as late as June. Almost every arrival during the course of the school year speaks no English."

By law, the schools must accept the students, many who come from Ecuador and the Dominican Republic.

"We’re Switzerland," Smith said. "We have no legal jurisdiction dealing with legal status." He said that as long as the child is living with a legal guardian, he or she is entitled to attend school in the district.

The schools go out of their way to accommodate the families, including sending letters home in English and Spanish as well as hiring several staff members fluent in both languages. Despite the resources allocated to immigrants, the district’s appropriation of $19,426 per pupil is below the median cost of other school districts in Westchester and Putnam counties, which is at $21,916.

The district also receives a substantial amount of grant money from the state, including an annual district total of $47,800 for immigrant students and $110,400 for limited-English students. Tarrytown/Sleepy Hollow was one of eight districts in the state to receive a grant of $299,975 to help continue a dual-language program. They are entering the second year of this four-year annual grant. The specific program was launched over four years ago in kindergarten and first grade and has expanded from grade to grade as the children have gotten older.

In kindergarten and first grade, the teachers split the time evenly giving lessons in English and Spanish with the purpose of creating fluency in both languages. This year, the fifth grade children, who began in the dual language program, will receive their social studies class entirely in Spanish. This class includes non-immigrant children whose first language is English.

In the middle school and high school levels, it’s a bit different. Smith explained that there’s an ongoing debate throughout the country about the right approach to teach students English ‚Äî either by gradually teaching English or immersing the students. Five years ago, the district went from the former to the latter, in part because non-English speakers aren’t exempt from the Regents exam.

St. Vincent said it takes two to three years for a person to become conversationally fluent in a foreign language. This means the person would be able to converse at a party, in the cafeteria, or on a soccer field.

"But that’s not academic language," St. Vincent said. "That’s social language." She said it takes five to seven years on average to develop academic language.

And this is a challenge because some students arrive with no English skills at 17 years old. No matter what age, the students enter ESL 1 and finish ESL 3 after becoming fluent. Sometimes it takes longer to obtain fluency, and students are entitled to attend public schools through the year they turn 21 years old.

"There’s nothing that gives me more satisfaction to see them walk across that stage and get their diplomas," St. Vincent said.

Likewise, Smith said many of the immigrant students show "a real eagerness to learn." He said they may be more excited about attending school than a student who might never have thought twice about it. Meanwhile, he said, their hard-working parents are very supportive of the schools.

Even though 23 percent of students are limited in their English skills, 91 percent of the students graduated from Sleepy Hollow High School this past year. Of that amount, 93 percent are going on to college.

Some do exceptionally well, like Miriam Ortiz, who is from Ecuador and moved to Sleepy Hollow when she was 11 years old. When she arrived, she was only able to say words like "hello" and "goodbye."

"That was basically it," Ortiz said in a recent interview. "At the beginning, it was frustrating." Despite the challenge facing her, she earned a 95 on the English Regents exam during her junior year of high school. Now, she’s double-majoring in secondary education and Spanish at Fordham University. Her goal is to become a high school Spanish and ESL teacher.

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About the Author: Brett Freeman