School Targets Older, Immigrant Students

A Houston school is attracting new immigrants who are older than ordinary high school students — but who never got to attend high school. Students take classes at night and on weekends. While some have their employers' support, others are persevering despite their employers' objections.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

Every year, hundreds of thousands of immigrants come to the US seeking work; many are illegal and many are young. Even teen-agers cross the border, often alone, to work as cooks and carpenters, janitors and nannies. Well, now in Houston, there is an effort to get some of these immigrant workers into the classroom. NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports.

JENNIFER LUDDEN reporting:

Back in his village in central Mexico, Jaime Gonzales went as far as he could in school, the equivalent of about eighth grade. His family couldn't afford the bus fare to the nearest high school, so Jaime became a farmhand. Then three years ago, he followed his father, brother and a sister to Houston. They helped him find work at a trucking company.

(Soundbite of tapping noises)

LUDDEN: One recent morning, Jaime used a mop to suds up the grill of an 18-wheeler, then hosed it clean.

(Soundbite of water being sprayed)

Mr. JAIME GONZALES: I wash five trucks a day, sometimes two, sometimes five.

LUDDEN: Jaime's at his job all day Monday through Saturday.

Mr. GONZALES: Then I do inspection on the trucks to see how damaged and scratch of the tires, or something like that.

LUDDEN: Jaime is 20. He figured he'd do this a long time and hadn't thought much beyond that. Then one night, watching the news on Spanish-language TV, he heard about plans for a new high school tailored for recent immigrants.

Mr. GONZALES: No. (Through Translator) I never imagined that I'd be going to school in the United States, first, because I never thought I'd have time for it. But now I realize that working all the time isn't the solution.

(Soundbite of classroom lesson)

Unidentified Man: Excellent. This six, that's the maximum number of what? The what? Electrons. Thank you.

LUDDEN: The Newcomer School operates around the edges of the most ethnically diverse public high school in Houston. Classes are at night and on Saturdays year round to accommodate work schedules. Students must be age 17 to 21 and generally have been in the US no more than three years.

(Soundbite of classroom lesson)

Unidentified Man: Are we OK, Senorita Zamora(ph)? Are we OK? Perfect.

LUDDEN: The students are overwhelmingly Hispanic, though some come from Africa or the Middle East; a number of refugees.

Steve Amstutz is the principal of Lee High School and the brain power behind the Newcomer School. He's a high-energy man who pumps classical music into school halls. Amstutz says for 87 percent of the kids at his school, English is not their first language. Too many were dropping out, and Amstutz thought he knew why.

Mr. STEVE AMSTUTZ (Principal, Lee High School): American schools are incredibly inflexible. We start at 9, we end at 3 or whatever the hours are, and there's no variation in that. That's the schedule; it's fixed. Take it or leave it. Take it or leave it is not a fair choice to put in front of 18-year-olds who need to provide for families and want an education.

LUDDEN: Once Amstutz got approval for a charter school for immigrants, organizers put out the word to current students. They alerted the Spanish media and distributed fliers in the neighborhood. They thought they'd lure back the dropouts, but then came a surprise.

Mr. AMSTUTZ: We actually found a whole lot of young people that had never dropped in. They were here in our community, and they had never, ever enrolled in school to begin with.

LUDDEN: People like Jaime Gonzales.

Mr. GONZALES: (Through Translator) It's changed my life a lot. Being here has made me realize things, like how important it is to speak more English. And I also discovered algebra. I didn't even know the subject existed, and it's my favorite.

LUDDEN: Jaime now leaves work at the trucking company an hour early each day to make it to class by 5. In an incredible show of support, his boss, a Chinese immigrant, is paying him for that missed hour as long as Jaime makes good grades.

Not all the students are as lucky. Twenty-one-year-old Norma Palifas(ph) divorced her husband when he didn't support her going to school. She's also had a difficult time with her boss at the cafeteria where she works.

Ms. NORMA PALIFAS: (Through Translator) I have fought with my boss over working hours 'cause I don't want to work more; I want to go to school. My boss has tried to fire me a couple of times, but he can't.

Unidentified Woman: Porque?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. PALIFAS: (Through Translator) Because I am a good worker.

LUDDEN: Sometimes school administrator Monico Rivas intervenes. When one woman's boss kept making her stay late and miss class, Rivas picked up the phone.

Mr. MONICO RIVAS (Administrator, Newcomer School): And so I talked with the employer. And, you know, once he learned a little bit more about the efforts that the employee was, you know, putting forth to really balance both the work and the school, he was receptive, although he was still--there were a few times where he would still kind of keep her a little bit longer. But I think the employer was also more supportive of her.

LUDDEN: Rivas says some can't find that balance between work and school and, in some cases, children. Being here can also mean having less money to send to families back home. Since the school opened in January, about 20 students have dropped out. But nearly 200 are sticking with it, and there's a wait list of 200 more. Rice University sociologist Stephen Kleinberg applauds the Newcomer School as a crucial effort. He says in Greater Houston, 75 percent of all those under age 30 are non-Anglo.

Mr. STEPHEN KLEINBERG (Rice University): We are at a hinge in history where all of the institutions, all the structures were built by Anglos, and all the future will be disproportionately and increasingly non-Anglo, people who are considerably less-privileged than the Anglos have been and in a time when education has become the critical determinant.

LUDDEN: Kleinberg says for generations, this nation prospered in part, because immigrants prospered in two or three generations, as the saying went, from peddler to plumber to professional. But no more.

Mr. KLEINBERG: Those middle steps on the ladder of blue-collar mobility have largely disappeared, and it's only education beyond high school, one or two years in a community college, that provides the technical skills that enable people to have upward mobility in the America of the 21st century.

(Soundbite of classroom lesson)

Unidentified Woman: In the north side, you have some directions here, very simple, that says, `Write down five reasons why...'

LUDDEN: Students at Newcomer School say the education they're getting here has changed their plans for the future. Jaime Gonzales wants to study business administration. Moises Akapaha(ph) came here a year ago from Guatemala. He'd planned to go back home after a few years, but now says he may stay. He works overnight in a bakery and says the school is giving him a lot more than an education.

Mr. MOISES AKAPAHA: (Through Translator) Usually in this country, we all work, so it's hard to have friends. We'd only see each other on weekends. Now that I'm going to school, I can see my friends in the hallway, and I have more friends.

LUDDEN: Next month, Houston's Newcomer School will move out of Lee High School and into its own space. The students and faculty are in the process of choosing their school colors and a mascot, and they want to change the name of the school. After all, they point out, the young adults here aren't newcomers forever. Jennifer Ludden, NPR News.

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