A group of immigrant high school students in the District asked Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson on Thursday to improve services for nonnative English speakers, saying that doing so would help achieve her goals for lifting student achievement across the city.
Several teens, part of a District-based advocacy group, said at a meeting with Henderson that immigrant students and their parents often struggle to get the translation services and other assistance they need to understand their new school system. They need more help, they said, than the counselors who are dedicated to their transition — and whose caseload can top 100 students — are able to provide.
Henderson said she could not promise to hire additional staff. But she said she was open to some of the students’ other lower-cost suggestions, including that schools establish support groups for immigrant families.
“I want to congratulate you on your courage to stand up and begin this conversation,” she told the teens at the offices of Many Languages One Voice, a nonprofit organization in Mount Pleasant that advocates for immigrant rights. “I can firmly commit to work with you.”
English language learners — or ELL students — make up 10 percent of D.C. public school students, compared with about 14 percent of students in Montgomery County students and 17 percent in Fairfax County.
Students said Thursday that their proposed support groups — which would include students, parents, teachers and community members — would coordinate an annual orientation. The group could also help immigrants get advice and assistance with their problems.
“Newcomers can go . . . ask for help, and you could introduce [the extra services] on the first day of school,” said Lisa Zhao, a native of China and a junior at Wilson High.
Solomon Kassahun, a 19-year-old senior at Cardozo High School, said he missed out on support services when he came to the District from Ethiopia three years ago. He had been in school for a month, he said, before he discovered that a counselor there was dedicated to helping kids like him.
“Most students feel if they don’t know English, they don’t know who to ask,” he said. “You need more connections in the school.”
Students also expressed frustration that those who are held back a grade while they learn English cannot then accelerate, forcing them to earn extra credits in night school or summer programs to graduate on time.
Now, students can take such credit-recovery courses only for classes they have already taken and failed. But that could change soon, Henderson said, as school system officials explore changes that would allow students to get credit for what they know — no matter how many or how few hours they’ve spent in class.
“It should be fairly reasonable for us to expand credit-recovery options for ELL students,” Henderson said.
Last summer, the school system initiated a program for ELL students to earn credits in English, allowing them to graduate earlier.
The students nabbed the meeting with Henderson by surprising her with a flash mob in the middle of a public meeting in July. As she stood up in a high school auditorium to speak to a crowd of Ward 5 residents, more than a dozen teens appeared onstage, dancing to the beat of a boombox and asking the chancellor to pay more attention to the issues they face.