Feature Story: Serving the 'Highest of High-Risk Students'

December 1, 2015

An extraordinary program at the GC - the first of its kind - serves a population about whom very little is known: Students with Interrupted or Inconsistent Formal Education (SIFE).

In 2004, Elaine Klein, now an associate professor emerita of Linguistics at the Graduate Center and Queens College, noticed something troubling while observing a high school class in the Flushing neighborhood of Queens.

Klein, who has many years of experience training language teachers, saw that several students were struggling far more than the typical ESL, or English as a second language, student.

These struggling ninth graders had little prior experience with the classroom and all that it entailed — from learning abstract academic concepts to the structure of a school day. They were Students with Interrupted or Inconsistent Formal Education, or SIFE, a relatively new designation by the New York State Department of Education.

SIFE typically have had limited or inconsistent schooling, sometimes owing to political or social conditions in their native countries. Often among this population are refugee students who have experienced great turmoil in their home countries or in refugee camps.

They first started getting attention from educators in the late 1990s and early 2000s, particularly after the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. Though upwards of 13,000 students fall into this category in New York City alone, very little is known about them. Some educators have called them the highest of high-risk students."

"Schools suddenly paid attention to students who were holding down their annual yearly progress," Klein says. "What became very clear was that this group needed attention."

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Over the last few decades, most urban schools have adapted to teaching English language learners, also known as emergent bilinguals; such students generally have a basic educational foundation and some literacy in their home language. However, students categorized as SIFE often have limited literacy in their home language and lack a foundation in subjects such as math and science. It is therefore not surprising that such students have among the lowest graduation rates and highest dropout rates in urban secondary schools throughout the United States.

"Teachers who are trained in ESL or in secondary school subject areas essentially have no idea how to teach kids who haven't yet learned how to read or write," Klein explains. "If students do not have sufficient grounding in reading in their own language, it takes them much longer to learn to read and write in English and to learn academic concepts through reading."

New York City, Klein (at left) says, was ahead of the curve on recognizing these challenges. After learning that Klein was trying to come up with ways of helping these students, officials from the Department of Education reached out to her. Klein insisted more research was needed before any practices were put into place.

The department hired the GC's Research Institute for the Study of Language in Urban Society (RISLUS), where Klein is a senior research associate, to come up with recommendations.

Klein and Gita Martohardjono, the associate director of RISLUS and associate professor and program chair of Linguistics, did extensive research and compiled their findings and recommendations in two reports.

After presenting their research, Klein met with two respected teachers in New York City's public schools: Suzanna McNamara and Annie Smith, who were also working on plans for improving SIFE education.

The three joined forces and officially launched Bridges to Academic Success in 2011 at the Graduate Center. The project was jointly managed by RISLUS and the Center for the Advanced Study of Education (CASE), with Klein as principal investigator, McNamara as director of curriculum, Smith as director of professional development and an instructional colleague, Aika Swai, as program director.

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Bridges, the first comprehensive program of its kind, provides an extra year of a specialized instruction in all academic subject areas - before students are introduced to traditional classes in secondary school.

Klein and her team felt strongly that it was important to provide students with extra help at the beginning of their formal education when they can experience success, rather than indefinitely extending their years in high school - a tactic that causes many students to drop out.

"In my dissertation research, I found that students who dropped out or struggled at my site of study were most often SIFE, many of whom still needed additional foundational literacy support," says Ph.D. candidate Lisa Auslander (Urban Education), now the project director for Bridges. "As a result, the mission of this work resonates with me."

In the program's pilot year, 2011-2012, four New York City high schools each conducted one Bridges class. Since then, the program has taken in about 60 new ninth-grade students a year - all of whom are at early stages of home-language literacy and have minimal English language skills.

Each participating school has a Bridges team, including subject teachers of math, science, social studies, and English Language Arts (ELA), using curricula developed to address the needs of these students; the classes emphasize the use of technological skills and support the use of students' home languages.

"Bridges is a unique initiative because students categorized as SIFE are empowered to value their languages, cultures and skills," says Rebecca Cuinga '14 (Linguistics [at right]), a co-principal investigator for Bridges. "The sheltered program allows SIFE to learn at their own pace."

In recent years, Bridges has introduced its approach to schools in Utica, Buffalo and Rochester, which have significant populations of refugees from Burma, Somalia, and Yemen, as well as SIFE from Puerto Rico.

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So far, the results have been positive. Klein hired an external evaluator in the program's second year. "The preliminary data look very promising," she says. "And we've gotten very encouraging results anecdotally from principals, teachers, and students."

To date, Klein has raised over $4 million for Bridges with support from the New York Community Trust and the education departments of New York City and New York State. But more is needed to continue this work: Bridges is currently seeking a grant, among other funding, to do a longitudinal study that will track students through their first years of high school and after graduation, says Klein, who expects the need for the program to rise in coming years as more children fleeing international crises arrive in the United States.

For Klein, providing all students with a good public school education is both a personal and a moral matter.

"I am a product of New York City's public school system," says Klein, who also graduated from Queens College in 1963 and from the GC in 1990; she has taught at both institutions and worked with immigrant students in New York City public schools for many years. "I feel strongly that the role of CUNY is to give back to the community."

She has purposefully included GC students as she expanded her team, which has grown to 45 members; three GC Ph.D. candidates have completed dissertations on students categorized as SIFE and there are several more in the works.

The Bridges team is comprised of both practitioners and academic researchers, Klein notes. "Even though our ideas and instincts sometimes diverge, it is important to include the contributions of those who have direct experience in the schools and those who are contributing their scholarship," she says.

Bridges is now developing a revised curriculum for use throughout New York State and is also scaling up its professional development sessions in Long Island, Rockland County, Westchester, and Albany. "As far as we know, nobody else is doing this," Klein says. "And everybody seems to want it."

Eventually, she hopes to expand the program throughout the country to those cities and towns that need it most.

"It is our strong sense that these students can make a very important contribution to their communities and to the global workforce," she says. "Rather than a 'needy' population, we see them as a potentially rich resource for this country. It's well worth our efforts to provide them with the enhanced opportunities they deserve and need to succeed here."

[Pictured above, top row (l-r): Suzanna McNamara, Kelly Feeney-Flanagan, Lisa Auslander, Ingrid Heidrick. Bottom row (l-r): Annie Smith, Dzheni Dilcheva, Elaine Klein, Rebecca Curinga, Virginia Skrelja.]"