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Students at the International Network for Public Schools come from 119 countries and speak 93 different languages. About 90 percent of them live in low-income households, 70 percent have been separated from a parent during the immigration process, and 30 percent have significantly interrupted or limited formal education.
And yet, they are performing remarkably well. At the network’s 15 New York City schools, about 64 percent of the students graduate in four years. That compares with 37 percent of English learners in other city high schools. The six-year graduation rate is 74 percent, versus 50 percent for English learners in the rest of New York.
The Hechinger Report sat down with Claire Sylvan, who began teaching at the first International school in Queens in 1991 and is now executive director of the 19-school network, with campuses in New York, California, Virginia and Washington, DC. She tells us what works for her students — and what doesn’t.
Question: How do you set up your schools to accommodate such a diverse group of students?
Answer: You have to set winnable goals. If you were to say, ‘I’m going to run a marathon’ and you’ve never run, and you say, ‘Well, your problem is you don’t know how to run 26 miles,’ that wouldn’t work very well. You have to start from what you can do and keep expanding that. We assume that diversity is going to exist, we assume it’s a strength, and we figure out how to leverage it.
Q: How is diversity a strength?
A: English language learners arrive in school, and even the definition of them is, ‘You don’t know English yet.’ … What we’re saying is, ‘Wow, you know a whole lot of things about the world.’ Some of our kids come in and don’t know a word of English, they may not know how to read, but they know three languages fluently.
Q: So how does that translate into how you teach?
A: You create diverse groups and hands-on projects for kids who have different levels at entry to work on so that all the strengths they can bring come into play, and they begin to develop the areas that need development. So for a teacher the job is really hard, because they have to create these projects, they have to think about multiple levels, they have to think about how to group the kids. That is a huge thing in this operation.
Q: How do the kids learn English?
A: We don’t have them sit in a room to learn English in isolation from their academic work. They’re learning English while they’re learning social studies, and they’re also using their native languages.
You don’t learn to ride a bicycle watching someone else to ride that bicycle. Our kids need to be actively using the language so they can become adept at that, and so that’s why they work in small groups, too.
Q: What other kinds of support do International schools provide?
A: Nontraditional family structures are the norm in our school. Students may not be living with a family member or may be living with a mother they haven’t seen in 15 years. So what we need to do is create a structure where somebody is in charge of the whole kid, not just how they did on the math test. We care how they did on the math test, but we know that if we don’t organize ourselves in such a way that we are dealing with the whole child, we’re not going to be able to move forward on any particular part. We’re not going to know what the kid’s strengths are, because we may only see what isn’t working.
Q: What does that mean for teachers?
A: High schools tend to be organized in a way that there’s no one group of teachers who see the same group of kids. And so they can’t really talk about all of the kids.
In our schools, all the teachers — a math, an English, a science and a social studies teacher — all share the same group of kids. So everyone knows what each other is teaching, they can align the instruction so it supports each other, but they can also talk about how the kids are doing: ‘Johnny’s doing nothing in my class.’ ‘Really? In my class I have him sitting next to the following five kids and he’s off the charts.’
Q: The majority of your principals have been International teachers. Why do you put such an emphasis on internal leadership development?
A: If people are involved in making a decision, they’re actually going to carry it out. The teachers are the people closest to the kids, and who knows them better than the people who see them everyday? So they’re likely to be able to say, ‘This idea has no chance of flying with kids,’ or ‘Here’s the way to modify it.’
It’s also how you sustain schools over time, because the other issue is that [if] a school’s great because of a great leader [and the] leader leaves, whoops, [the] school goes down. That’s a not long-term strategy for success.