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Brooklyn’s Prospect Heights offers a model for teaching immigrants

At Lafayette High School in Buffalo, a class of immigrant high schoolers works in pairs, coloring a world map to show patterns of European colonization for their global history class.

At another global history class 400 miles away at the International High School at Prospect Heights in Brooklyn, small groups of immigrant students use their limited English vocabulary to debate the genocide in Rwanda.

These two public schools share much in common. They have similar enrollments and racial diversity, no academic admissions standards, and both enroll many students who speak little to no English.

A quarter to a third of students in both schools had little formal education in their native countries and are often older than the traditional students for these grades. Some had never before picked up a pencil.

At the Buffalo school, 26 percent of the students graduate on time.

At the Brooklyn school, the graduation rate is 66 percent, rivaling many urban schools in the state and exceeding many Buffalo schools. The Brooklyn school’s six-year graduation rate climbs to 78 percent, compared with 37 percent at Lafayette.

The school at Prospect Heights answers a burning question for Buffalo: Can you fill a high school with immigrants and refugees – some illiterate in their own native language – and get a majority to graduate on time with a Regents diploma?

The answer is yes.

What’s happening in Brooklyn provides a road map for Buffalo schools as Erie County has welcomed more than 6,000 refugees over the past five years, many families coming as much for their children’s futures as for their own, experts say.

There are many reasons why the school at Prospect Heights, part of New York City’s network of international schools, works.

Students there don’t just learn, they also teach each other. Early grade levels are combined so that students can absorb information from kids who know more and feed information to those who know less.

Instructors work in tight-knit teams, modeling the same kind of collegial support they expect of their students. Long classroom lectures are nonexistent. English language skills are not taught separately, but incorporated into every subject.

And students work on theme-centered projects that run for weeks, even months.

“We don’t do drill-and-kill,” said Claire Sylvan, executive director of New York City’s Internationals Network for Public Schools.

The Brooklyn school doesn’t have longer school days, smaller class sizes or lower graduation standards than Lafayette. In fact, it enrolls an even higher percentage of beginner students with limited formal education.

The school’s only admissions standard is that students must have been in the United States four years or less.

Some Buffalo educators dismiss the comparisons with Prospect Heights, citing demographic differences.

Sylvan concedes that Buffalo educates a higher proportion of refugees than New York City. It’s also true that not all 15 schools in the Internationals Network do as well as Prospect Heights.

But none do as poorly as Lafayette, either.

All students learn together

The formidable, beige brick structure once known as Prospect Heights High School fades to a washed-out gray under an overcast sky. It is a 1920s landmark in this trending but still too-poor-to-be-chic neighborhood of Brooklyn. The school has metal detectors and an X-ray machine in the lobby.

But a few floors above, students vibrating with noisy energy and colorful garb trample patches of royal blue floor tile. Animated chatter spills from nearly every classroom.

Sylvan, 63, leads the tour with an expert air. The diminutive but unflinching Brooklyn native founded the Internationals Network for Public Schools in 2003, and the Prospect Heights school was one of the first the network opened.

On this particular day, she walks gingerly. She twisted her foot on a sidewalk – a hazard of being a New Yorker, she says – and it still hurt.

Her assistant offers to go back and grab her cane, but Sylvan says it isn’t worth the trouble and gamely makes her way up and down the stairs that connect the 1½ floors the school occupies.

As she enters every classroom, she stands long enough to point out the obvious: Students are teachers here.

Kids lean in shoulder-to-shoulder, marking up and exchanging papers, smudging their shared laptop screens. They translate for their peers. They heatedly debate topics, sometimes with thick accents and halting, simple English. The self-consciousness of September has long since disappeared.

There are no classrooms with desks set up in even, tidy rows. Instead, during many class changes, scraping sounds vibrate into the hallways as teachers ask their students to regroup their desks based on the lesson plan.

To capitalize on the group learning, all ninth- and 10th-graders learn together. Regardless of differences in their academic backgrounds and English language skills, all take the same two-year curriculum.

Students with poorer English language or academic skills are grouped with stronger peers who help tutor and translate for them.

One ninth/10th-grade biology class resembles an art class, with students clustering around sheets of cut-up construction paper, glue sticks and boxes of markers as they paste down descriptive panels about various diseases of the body.

Snippets of Haitian-Creole, Spanish, Chinese, French, Uzbek and Arabic add to the classroom din. But with the fall semester behind these children, English is clearly the cross-cultural language for everyone.

Their research of body-destroying diseases, from diabetes to emphysema, hangs on the walls in posters.

In this classroom, the biology teacher repeatedly breaks up students into different groups so that all kids are forced to share what they learned from the last group with the next group.

That is the only way every classmate gains a complete understanding of the human body and the only way they can complete their final projects.

“Grouping is a big part of the skill for teaching this way,” Sylvan says.

On this particular day, students are finishing informational pamphlets on a disease they each chose to focus on. Each brochure must describe a disease, its symptoms, its causes and its effect on a body system.

One girl creates a folded, purple pamphlet on sickle cell anemia because she has two friends who inherited the condition. Another unfurls a long, fan-folded flier on diabetes, because that was her grandfather’s diagnosis.

The temptation for teachers faced with teaching low-level students speaking limited English and high-level students speaking fluent English is to assign different lessons and different homework to the two groups.

Not here. All students cover the same material and work on the same projects, and every student must complete the same assignment. But teachers tailor their expectations and provide extra support and materials based on each student’s abilities.

In this class, for instance, beginner students can create pamphlets on a disease already studied thoroughly in class while intermediate students select a disease covered only superficially in class. Advanced students choose a disease that wasn’t covered in class at all and requires outside research.

When they complete their work, they must present it to a panel of adults.

“The main thing that’s happening in class is that the kids are actively using language,” Sylvan says.

From blood to beauty

This school has come a long way in 10 short years. The walls tell the story. Every shade of beige, tan and brown covers a long stretch of hallway in tidy squares from floor to ceiling. The year the school opened, students had their exact skin tone matched as a paint color. The result was a unified mosaic that left most students unable to pinpoint which color square was theirs.

Stenciled poetic lines float above doorways and lockers, words that inform visitors of students’ physical and emotional journeys to this safe haven: RESPECT PEACEFUL FAR FAR AWAY .

“Peaceful” is the last word that would have been associated with this place a decade ago. In 2002-03, Prospect Heights High School wasn’t just one of New York City’s most dangerous high schools. It was No. 1.

The crime rate for students committing major offenses was higher than any of the other 250 or so high schools in the city. The school had abysmal academic stats and was better known as a training ground for gangsters than graduates.

But under then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s reform agenda, the 3,000-seat Prospect Heights High School was broken like a graham cracker into four smaller schools. The building now offers a school of music and theater, one for science and the environment, and another for global citizenship.

The international school joined the trio in 2004, part of the Internationals Network for Public Schools, a network that continues to grow and expand into other states every year.

Sylvan, now the network’s executive director, founded the international schools network almost by accident.

She had spent 11 years working as a junior high bilingual education teacher when she mused at a retirement party one night that she was ready for a change of scenery. The next morning, she saw a posting for the International High School at LaGuardia Community College.

“I went there,” she said, “and my head was blown off.”

In every room, she witnessed students of different races and nationalities mixing together, speaking different languages. In a cramped basement, students had turned garbage cans into hallway work stations so they could develop their team projects. Sylvan was so enraptured by what she saw that she had to be dragged out of classrooms on her interview day.

It was a recipe for success, one that deserved to be copied.

In 2003, Sylvan applied for school start-up money from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, a philanthropic organization that eventually contributed $8 million over the years to dramatically expand international schools in New York City.

To tap that money, Sylvan belatedly discovered she needed to create a nonprofit organization. So she did. The Internationals Network for Public Schools was born.

The learning model at LaGuardia eventually became the foundation of the Prospect Heights international school and 17 others like it.

‘Everybody’s equal here’

Students at Prospect Heights spend more classroom time on subjects than students in some other immigrant-heavy schools because they don’t take special classes to learn English.

Class periods run 65 minutes, compared with 40 to 45 minutes in many other high schools. The Brooklyn school compensates by not offering English-as-a-second-language classes, which are booked in double blocks at Buffalo’s Lafayette High School.

Sylvan points out that students receive no high school credits for taking ESL classes. At Prospect Heights, every teacher is considered an English language teacher. So are many of the students.

They turn borrowed MacBook laptops into all-purpose electronic tools for translation, research and classroom reporting. In every classroom, translation dictionaries also line the shelves in help-yourself fashion.

In one 12th-grade English class, students cluster around wide, group tables topped with dull-edged paperbacks. Dictionaries still dot a few work spaces, but the seniors rely much less on translation aids than they did as freshmen.

They had finished “Macbeth” and were preparing to tackle African-American vernacular English while reading Zora Neal Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God.” No easy job.

The teacher draws some parallels by asking about their own knowledge of local dialects. The names of unrecognized, exotic languages punctuate the air.

“Garifuna,” says one student, referring to the language spoken by indigenous people from northern parts of South America.

Finally, everyone gets a worksheet filled with lines from Hurston’s book.

After reading “De Lawd will provide,” Dominican Republic native Manuel Ventura, 17, tests out the words phonetically.

“I think it’s ‘The Lord,’ ” he finally announces to his classmates around the table.

Though Manuel started school in New York as an eighth-grade bilingual education student, he didn’t really learn English until he entered Prospect Heights a year later.

As a ninth-grader, he felt self-conscious speaking out loud. But he eventually realized that getting through his classes required him to talk and that his peers weren’t going to judge.

“Everybody’s equal here,” he says.

Manuel has been accepted at Union College in Schenectedy, where he plans to major in computer science and minor in French and Portuguese, two languages he doesn’t currently speak. But at a school where all his friends speak two or three languages, Manuel says he decided to study more languages in college so he can easily work abroad.

“Here, I got inspired,” he says.

Teacher teamwork

The teachers at Prospect Heights take collective responsibility for their students’ learning. If this sounds logical and simple, it isn’t.

It requires a lot of teamwork across all subject areas, which is why administrators don’t do the hiring at this school – the teachers do, as a committee.

“That took a little legal finessing,” Sylvan says.

Once part of the faculty, teachers join a specific teaching team. Not a social studies team or a math team, but a cross-subject teaching team that meets twice a week.

Because each classroom of students stays together all year long, so do the teachers who teach them. A social studies teacher, English teacher, math teacher and science teacher sit together, armed with academic files and personal observations.

They trade stories on how the same kid doing well in English struggles in social studies. They also discuss emotional and health-related problems that routinely mark this vulnerable group.

Like a hospital triage unit, they figure out which of the teachers among them is best equipped to intervene.

And when possible, they follow their students from one year to the next.

Science teacher Adam Lammers is one example. Moving from table to table with his side-cropped hair, multi-pierced ears and old-school glasses, he reigns over the chaos of an 11th-grade class finishing up final presentations.

The prior two school years, he taught a ninth/10th-grade class. Now, he grins as he looks over his current crop of students and realizes he previously taught all of the kids in the room except three.

He reflects with satisfaction on what his 11th-graders know now.

“You get to see the deeper understanding that you laid the groundwork for in ninth and 10th grades,” he said.

In-depth learning

One of the biggest challenges teachers face at the International School at Prospect Heights is developing theme-based projects in every subject area. These projects are designed to cover all the academic ground high school students need to learn.

That’s difficult work – projects sometimes span months – but these efforts promote cooperative learning and the kind of critical thinking skills the Common Core demands.

In a 12th-grade science class, teacher Rachel Huang stands back in her bright pink cardigan and watches her students work together like a well-oiled machine.

It wasn’t always this way. When she joined the school a year after it opened, she struggled with the concept of teaching English through the lens of science and spent a lot of time running to her school mentor and principal for advice.

“I’m not going to lie,” she said. “It was very hard.”

None of that is evident now.

At one table, 17-year-old Temur Amriev attacks a classroom laptop. Wearing a stray rubber band around his left wrist, he finds a Web page with blood-type information and reaches behind him to hand the MacBook back to classmate Doumbia Matadje.

He reclaims his own laptop, shares his screen with the classmate to his right and offers a critique of the DNA report by a Chinese classmate sitting two seats over.

Then he launches into a fluent and detailed explanation of his class assignment: using DNA clues to help identify the father of a boy named Mike.

“We only know he was B+ homozygous,” said Temur, a native of Uzbekistan, a former Soviet country.

Temur is the same kid who arrived in the United States five years ago knowing barely three words of English. Now a junior, he complains that his assignments have gotten much harder.

Great educational disparity

Temur’s background highlights the great educational disparity among immigrant students who enter Prospect Heights. Though he came to this country speaking no English, he was not illiterate. In fact, when he entered ninth grade here, he was shocked at how easy the math was. It was knowledge he had learned two years earlier in his native country.

Now he serves as a guiding light for his peers, many of whom came to New York with a much more limited education than he had. It is a role he accepts without question. “If they’re struggling,” he said, “then I help.”

He helps classmates like Doumbia, the student who had asked him to find the blood typing Web page she needed to work with that day.

Doumbia went to school in West Africa until she was 12. She wasn’t doing well in school there, so her parents considered it a waste of money for her to continue her education. Though she attended a public school, her family still had to pay for all her books and supplies. So for two years, her parents kept her home.

In 2008, Doumbia left behind three brothers and a sister and came to the United States with her stepmother. She enrolled in public schools in Denver. Because she spoke and understood so little English, she said, she sat quietly and tried not to attract attention.

The following year, her stepmother took her to New York City, then returned home to West Africa, leaving Doumbia on her own.

She’s in foster care now, with no family here except her school family. She tries to call home, but it has been difficult to reach relatives there. The last time she spoke with her parents was before Christmas, she said. Her mother was sick.

Doumbia still struggles with reading and spelling, but she speaks English fluently now and is a member of the school’s National Honor Society.

Questioning the model

It would be a lie to suggest that international schools like Prospect Heights succeed without difficulty. Not all are so successful. Sylvan admits that no school in the international schools network has opened without hardship, or even rebellion.

“There will always be pushback,” Sylvan says. “We know it’s going to happen – 18 schools and it’s happened 18 times.”

Administrators would get bombarded with questions like: How do we know what kids are learning? How do we assess it? Grade it?

It got to the point where the Internationals Network started issuing a handbook to new schools that featured a chapter specifically to address this. It was titled, “Oh, they really don’t speak English.”

“People can’t imagine when they see a kid who comes in and doesn’t speak a word of English, what a graduate can look like,” she says. “So we show them.”

The Internationals Network for Public Schools provides opportunities for principals to meet and share ideas and organizes summer institutes, fall teacher training sessions, annual leadership retreats and other targeted school assistance.

But just as important, they provide a culture of peer support among teachers at each school.

That kind of support is necessary all year long, not just when schools like the one at Prospect Heights first open. Teachers run into problems with the school’s model regularly.

In one empty classroom dotted with U.S. maps, social studies teacher Bob Van Pelt ignores his mug of tea as he vents his frustrations to literacy coach Joanna Yip. He alternates between stretching his legs out under the table and folding them back under his seat as he outlines his concerns with heated candor.

Themed instruction can’t always trump chronological teaching, he argues. It’s fine to develop a social studies project on the “Meaning of Freedom,” he says, but the course of American history doesn’t always follow a project outline.

“I did something that no one’s done before,” he says, tapping his index finger against the table as if daring Yip to object. “I did U.S. history from start to finish.”

Van Pelt had purchased a set of sixth-grade U.S. history textbooks that he figured his students could follow and took all his students through it to ensure they could pass the U.S. history Regents exam.

“Unfortunately, I didn’t have enough textbooks for every kid,” he said, “so I made a lot of photocopies.”

Yip listens. She neither approves nor disapproves of Van Pelt’s methods or point of view. Instead, she asks questions about what worked well for him, what didn’t and asks what might help him in the future.

It is the same model of support teachers provide their students, Sylvan points out. Teachers need it, too.

She adds that Van Pelt’s objections are natural and fair, worth discussing with peers. But the school doesn’t teach to the test overall, she says.

Many schools with high immigrant populations curse the Common Core learning standards as yet another burden for a school already facing tremendous needs.

But Sylvan only shrugs. She considers the International School at Prospect Heights a testament to the in-depth learning and critical thinking skills demanded by the Common Core every day.

“We’re not that freaked out about it,” she says, “because the Common Core is fundamentally what we’re doing.”

Tuesday: The challenges Buffalo’s Lafayette High School faces

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