February 3, 2018

School system’s program for older immigrants deserves chance

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There has to be a certain comfort level in a classroom for education to succeed. The Worcester School Department’s New Citizens Center for Young Adults — or NCC Young Adults — may be struggling to fully achieve that comfort level, according to an article last week.

The program is young — only a year — and the 50 or so participants, by school standards, are “old.”

They’re 18 to 21. And these students have come from long distances and some tough circumstances to be in their classroom at the school system’s Fanning Building, on Chatham Street.

NCC Young Adults serves recent immigrants and refugees, some with very limited English. Many have had their education severely interrupted. And the students are at an awkward age: too young to be in adult programs, but older than most high school seniors. The law entitles residents who have not yet received a high school diploma to a public education until they turn 22.

The program faces a bundle of challenges — also known as opportunities, as any good school system knows.

Worcester school administrators, led by Superintendent Maureen F. Binienda, who is deeply experienced with children with challenging backgrounds, created the program as an innovative and effective way to rise to the task.

But some advocates and organizations serving refugees and immigrants have raised concerns about how much NCC Young Adults is really achieving. It’s too soon to say, of course; we’ll need data from longer than one year to properly assess how well the program achieves its ultimate goal: having students either earn their high school equivalency credentials, or enroll in the school district’s Gerald Creamer Center to work toward their diploma.

Still, pushback against Worcester’s unique program — a program that could serve as a model for the state — is a learning opportunity.

The most pointed concern is whether the students are being well served by attending class together in the Fanning Building rather than going to what would be their home high schools.

Mukesh Baral, president of the Boston-based Advocacy for Refugee and Immigrant Services, went so far as to say, “For us, it doesn’t look right. I see a clear case of segregation.”

Though the word “segregation” is loaded and almost certainly too strong, it gets to the gist of what has made some observers uncomfortable.

“These kids have experienced so much disruption in their lives already,” said Meg Gallo, a refugee resettlement worker in Worcester. “One of the things they crave is a sense of normalcy.” She said one of the students cried as he told her he didn’t want to drop out of school, but didn’t want to do the program, either.

So far, the school system — which also runs two other, more established New Citizens Center programs for younger students, both located in city schools — has not allowed students in the Young Adult program to attend regular high schools. The issue is age, students 18-21 being much older than 14- or 15-year-old freshmen.

But children are resilient, curious and open-minded; meanwhile, some in the NCC Young Adults program may be feeling pushed aside or as if they’re missing out. We urge the school system to weigh requests to learn in school settings case-by-case. To enhance experiences all around, the program should also find ways to make more connections with the schools and community.

Meanwhile, day by day, excellence is the answer.

Immigrants are welcome in Worcester, and bring valuable economic impacts across the state. And for everyone, the school years are fleeting and crucial. Worcester’s NCC programs need to do their best for their students. It’s not the setting they’ll take with them to the future; it’s the schooling.

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