These immigrants came for a better education. Now, they'll never graduate high school

Miami Springs Adult Education Center student talks about the GED program

Ricardo Olivera, Miami Springs Adult Education Center student talks about the GED program
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Ricardo Olivera, Miami Springs Adult Education Center student talks about the GED program

They come fleeing gang violence and repressive regimes. They come after hurricanes and earthquakes. They come in search of work and an education.

But in Miami-Dade County, a place built by the aspirations of newcomers, hundreds of immigrant teens will never graduate from high school.

Instead, they will end up in adult education programs — some of which are taught in Spanish — where they learn little English and where they finish, if they’re lucky, with the high school equivalency diploma known as a GED (General Educational Development). The path to college and a well-paying job, already a struggle for an immigrant, will become even more difficult.

That’s because for years Miami-Dade schools have steered, and sometimes pushed, immigrant teens into adult education programs, the Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald have found. Although the school district insists that students choose whether to enroll in the programs, students and immigrant rights groups say that is often not the case.

Some immigrant teens try to enroll in high school when they first arrive in Miami and are told that they’re too old or that they won’t pass the tests needed to graduate. Others enroll, but are instructed to transfer to a GED program when they struggle in class.

This school year, roughly 1,000 of the 5,000 recently arrived immigrant teens entering the school district ended up in a Spanish-language GED program instead of a regular high school. That figure doesn’t include students who, after getting turned away from their local school, enrolled in GED and English programs run by organizations outside the school district.

Miami-Dade school administrators consider the Spanish program a good option for 16 and 17-year-old immigrants who they think might not be able to make up the high school credits and pass the standardized tests required to graduate with a regular diploma.

“The goal is to provide an additional option that affords students an opportunity to earn a high school equivalent diploma in the face of onerous state graduation requirements,” said district spokeswoman Daisy Gonzalez-Diego.

But schools also have an incentive to funnel immigrant teens into adult education. Graduation rates and standardized test scores are a major factor in determining the rating each school gets from the state. Immigrant teens sent directly to GED programs can’t negatively affect a school’s graduation rate. Since GED students don’t have to take state standardized tests, they also can’t hurt the school’s overall test scores. Immigrant students' test results start factoring into the school grade two years after their arrival, administrators said.

One lawyer, who tried to intervene on behalf of an immigrant teen denied enrollment at a local high school, said she was told by school staff that they were concerned the student would negatively affect the graduation rate. The lawyer spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to protect the student’s identity.

The practice raises legal questions. Other school systems, including districts in Florida, have been scrutinized and even sued for not allowing immigrant teens to enroll in high school.

“It’s illegal and it’s unethical and it changes the life outcomes of these students in many cases because we know that students who have a high school diploma do better than students who have a GED,” Tatyana Kleyn, a professor at City College of New York who studies immigrant education, said in reference to the practice as a whole. “These programs don’t substitute for a high school experience. They’re a watered-down version of that. They’re not education. They’re test prep.”

Another option

Francisca Rondóm , a Miami Jackson Adult Education Center student talks about the GED program

Miami-Dade’s Spanish GED preparation programs, known as Success Management Academies, were designed to make it easier for teenage immigrants ages 16 and 17 to get a high school equivalency diploma. Unlike state standardized tests in Florida, which are only offered in English, the GED exam is offered in both English and Spanish.

Although state law does not establish a maximum age at which students can no longer attend high school, administrators said it can be difficult for immigrant teens to make up the credits needed for graduation, especially if they don’t have a strong academic background.

“These were students who, in some cases, hadn’t been in school since second or third grade in their own countries, [and are] arriving to a high school,” said Carlos Rios, who was the principal at Miami Jackson Senior High when he spoke to the Herald/el Nuevo Herald during the 2016-17 school year. He's now the principal at Southwest Miami Senior High.

The Success Management Academies program is offered at 11 high schools, including Jackson High. Unlike many adult education programs, it’s taught during the day in an effort to give students something more akin to a high school experience. Students take classes in Spanish to prepare for the GED as well as English-as-a-second language courses. They wear school uniforms and can participate in clubs and other extracurricular activities, according to the school district.

For some teens, adult education programs like the SMA are a good option. They give students the flexibility to get a job while they study and allow them to enter the workforce more quickly. They can also provide a more familiar environment.

Sisters Lucia and Francisca Rondóm enrolled in Jackson High when they first arrived in Miami from the Dominican Republic at ages 16 and 17. They were bullied at the school and were happy when, after less than a year, they were told to transfer to the SMA program.

At the regular school “there were some teachers and students who were discriminatory. But here you get together with Latinos,” Francisca said in Spanish. “They help you. Since I started, it’s been cool.”

The Rondóm sisters worked at a local supermarket bagging groceries while they were enrolled in the program and eventually earned their GEDs in Spanish.

Joey Bautista, the principal at Miami Jackson’s Adult Education Center when he spoke to the Herald/el Nuevo Herald during the 2016-17 school year, said that while the SMA program tries to help students improve academically so they can go to community college or a trade school, many of the teens told him their priority was to work.

“No one leaves their country and either swims or takes a boat, walks for miles and days under extreme circumstances, because they want a better education. That, they could get at home,” Bautista said. “They all made that journey because they were looking for work. They came here for financial hope.”

Joey Bautista, the Miami Jackson Adult Education Center director talks about the GED program

(Bautista was later fired from Jackson High for an unrelated matter after he was arrested in August of 2017 for allegedly using school district funds to pay his housekeeper. He has pleaded not guilty in the pending case.)

Most of the more than two dozen students interviewed for this story said education was one of their reasons for leaving their homeland. They had hoped a better education in the United States would get them to college and, ultimately, a well-paying profession.

And while schools vary from country to country, the majority of the students had completed eighth grade or at least some high school before coming to Miami.

Uncertain outcomes

When Ricardo Olivera moved from Cuba to Miami-Dade in 2015 at the age of 16, he thought he was going to enroll in high school, take classes in English and make friends with whom to practice the language. He was especially excited about studying science, his favorite subject, because he wanted to become a doctor.

“I wanted to enroll in regular classes to learn the language faster,” Olivera said.

Instead, when Olivera showed up at the neighborhood high school, he was told that at his age, it would be difficult for him to learn English and pass the tests required to graduate. He was sent to an SMA program at Miami Springs Senior High to obtain a Spanish GED. Eight months in, Olivera was disappointed with how little English he had been able to learn.

“We’re isolated from the rest of the students in the regular school,” he said in Spanish during the 2016-17 school year. “It would be better if we were more integrated, closer.” (Interviews with students in the SMA program were conducted during the 2016-17 school year as part of a long-term project).

Olivera eventually got his GED and found a job handling cargo at Miami International Airport. He enrolled in English classes at Miami Dade College, but because he hadn’t learned much English in the SMA program, he had to start at the lowest level.

Although Olivera, now 18, still dreams of going to a university and studying science, achieving that goal has become “a little more complicated,” he said.

One college administrator, who asked not to be named because he wasn't authorized to speak on this matter, said that many of the immigrant teens who take English classes at the college after getting their Spanish GED use up almost half of their Pell grants — federal education grants for low-income students — taking remedial English classes and can't afford to keep studying.

It’s not just a lack of English that holds students back. Experts say it can be harder for teens to achieve their college and career goals without a regular high school diploma.

“When we’re talking about equity for all students, it’s important to realize that a GED is not equivalent to getting a high school diploma,” said Mari Corugedo, director of Florida’s League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) and an English for Speakers of Other Languages teacher. “Kids need to have the opportunity and resources to be able to succeed in high school, whatever age they come in.”

And many students enrolled in Spanish GED programs in Miami-Dade don’t actually get a GED.

Fewer than a third of the students enrolled in the SMA program passed the GED during the 2016-17 school year, according to data collected by school administrators. The test is administered by a private company so schools have to rely on students to report their scores. It’s likely more students passed at a later date after the scores were tallied, said district spokeswoman Gonzalez-Diego.

The school district stressed that the pass rate for SMA students was higher than the state as a whole, where roughly 16 percent of GED students passed the test or continued studying. In comparison, however, the high school graduation rate in Florida was 82 percent that year.

School grades

Diana Oliva, a student at Miami Jackson Adult Education Center talks about the GED program.

Critics say high schools steer immigrant students into GED programs out of concern that they won’t graduate or that they won’t pass standardized tests, both of which affect school ratings. A bad school grade can have serious consequences, including determining whether the school can remain open under current management. In Florida, standardized test scores also affect teacher evaluations and pay.

“That is the root of the problem, in my opinion, the state’s grading system for the schools,” said Julio Calderón, an organizer with the Florida Immigrant Coalition who has worked with families whose children were denied enrollment. “If we could change that system, we would likely see more immigrant students in regular classrooms.”

Last year, several Haitian students were pushed out of Miami Edison Senior High after they failed a standardized test, according to Carlos Salomon, a Haitian minister the students contacted for help.

Renande Courtois was one of the students. She enrolled in Edison High at the age of 17 and was an 18-year-old senior when she failed the test.

“They didn’t give us a choice, they didn’t give me any assistance,” her father, Jean Renel Courtois, said in Creole. The school district doesn’t offer GED preparation programs in French or Creole, since the GED isn’t offered in those languages locally, and Courtois didn’t know the school district offered GED programs in English. He ended up enrolling his daughter in a private English GED program that he struggled to pay for.

Gonzalez-Diego said the school district was not aware of the complaints at Edison High, but said that, if true, they would be “inconsistent with our policies and procedures.” She said schools don’t consider graduation rates and test scores when offering GED programs to a student, but only whether the programs might be in the student's best interest. Immigrant teens have a “relatively low impact on school performance,” she added, because their test results aren’t factored into the school grade for two years after their arrival.

It also wouldn’t benefit a school’s graduation rate if an immigrant teen transferred to a GED program after he or she had already enrolled in the school because that student would still count as a non-graduate. However, data analyzed by the Herald/el Nuevo Herald suggests that most teenage English-language learners who enrolled in GED programs between 2010 and 2016 went directly into the programs when they arrived in Miami.

Overall, English-language learners make up a disproportionate number of the teens who enroll in school district GED programs — roughly 70 percent between 2010 and 2016, data shows. Not all English-language learners are immigrants, but it’s unlikely a large number of U.S.-born students would still be classified as English-language learners in high school.

No choice

Public schools are legally required to accept all students, regardless of their immigration status or how well they speak English. Under federal law, schools must help English-language learners overcome language barriers so they can access all education programs.

Yet in at least 35 school districts in 14 states, public schools have discouraged or barred immigrant teens from enrolling or funneled them into alternative programs, according to a 2016 Associated Press investigation.

Administrators in Miami-Dade stressed that schools work with immigrant students and their parents to help them decide whether to attend a GED program. But the vast majority of students interviewed for this story said it wasn’t clear they had a choice.

Jose Cruz, former counselor at Miami Jackson Adult Education Center talks about the GED program

“Sometimes, the way they talk about the advice they were given, it comes like an order: You should go to the GED program,” Jose Cruz, then a counselor in Jackson High's GED program, said during the 2016-17 school year. He's no longer at the school. “Can they demand to stay in the school? You are talking about kids that the family doesn't have roots here in the country, so nobody's going to go [to the school] and discuss the issues.”

To Vanessa Canizalez, who was nearing her 17th birthday when she emigrated from Honduras to Miami, enrolling in a GED program didn’t feel like a choice. Canizalez had tried to go to her neighborhood school, Westland Hialeah Senior High, so she could learn English, but said she was turned away.

Canizalez felt isolated in the SMA program at Miami Springs Senior High. “We’re in the same school, but when we leave to eat, we don’t eat with the [regular] school. We don’t do the same activities as the school does. Everything is separated,” she said. “Look, every immigrant comes to this country to achieve something that's not possible in our native countries. If I could do something for them I’d create a program where everyone feels that this country is also ours... And that we are treated as equals and not discriminated against.”

Immigrant services and legal aid groups in Miami-Dade said the students they work with have had similar experiences when they try to enroll in high school.

Jonathan Fried, the executive director of We Count!, an immigrant rights organization based in Homestead, said that at least five teens have asked for the nonprofit's help after they were turned away from local high schools.

Fried tried to intervene on behalf of one of the teens by calling school district administrators, who he said told him the teen should have been admitted. But when the teen returned to the high school armed with this information, she was still barred from attending classes. She ended up taking English classes at night in an adult education program.

Fried said he understands the difficulties of providing an education to recently arrived immigrant teens. His organization teaches English classes at night twice a week. Many of the teens who attend are indigenous, so Spanish isn't their first language, and don’t have a high school-level education.

Still, it is incumbent on the school system to find a solution, he said.

“Nobody is saying that it is easy for the school system. I know that integrating immigrant students is a challenge,” Fried said. “But the school system needs to deal with this situation by creating appropriate educational programs.”

Vanessa Canizalez, Miami Springs Adult Education Center student talks about the GED program

In Florida, the Palm Beach and Collier County school districts have been sued for denying immigrant teens enrollment in high school.

Two years ago, the national civil rights advocacy group Southern Poverty Law Center filed a lawsuit against the Collier County school district for barring some recently arrived immigrant teens from enrolling in high schools and sending them to adult education English programs.

“They have to accept the students that come through their door,” said Michelle Lapointe, acting deputy legal director for the SPLC. “It is the responsibility of educators to figure out the best program for educating those students, but they first have to be allowed into school.”

An attorney for the Collier school district declined to comment for this article, citing the ongoing litigation. In a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, the district argued that the immigrant teens didn’t meet the requirements for entering high school because they were years behind academically.

In Miami-Dade, it’s unclear exactly how many immigrant teens have ended up in adult education programs in recent years. Students who enroll in GED and English programs run by organizations outside the school district don’t show up in school data. At Miami Dade College, for example, an average of 100 foreign-born teens enroll in GED programs every year.

School district data shows that between 2010 and 2016, at least 2,000 English-language learners under the age of 18 enrolled in GED programs. The data only includes country of birth for roughly half of the teenage students, of which about a quarter came from Cuba. Smaller numbers of students came from nearly every country in Latin America as well as other parts of the world.

After the Herald/el Nuevo Herald inquired about the school district’s policies for enrolling immigrant teens in adult education programs, spokeswoman Gonzalez-Diego said the district plans to review the SMA program.

“Although the program was created with pure intentions, there is room for reassuring its integrity,” she said. The school district will now require verification of parental consent to place students in a GED program, in addition to training staff on enrollment protocols and issuing a directive to schools.

For some students, however, it’s too late.

Diana Oliva was 15 when she emigrated from Honduras to Miami in 2013 to reunite with her mother. “I always said that in the United States the education was going to be better and I would have a lot of opportunities to learn more,” she said during the 2016-17 school year.

Oliva attended Jackson High for two and a half years — long enough for her standardized test scores to start counting against the school’s grade — but was only in the 10th grade as she neared her 18th birthday. School administrators sent her to a GED program.

“My mom never met with any of the teachers. She was only told that she had to come to the program to enroll me, so the next day she came and enrolled me here,” she said.

Her parents, Oliva added, “were never on board with this.”

Oliva had enjoyed attending a regular high school, but in the SMA program she didn’t feel she was learning as much. In fact, she worried that her English was getting worse. “I spoke a little English, I was starting to get the hang of it,” she said in Spanish. “But now, more or less, I’m forgetting some things.”

Oliva ended up withdrawing from the program.

Miami Herald staff writer Jacqueline Charles contributed to this report. Lena Jackson's reporting was made possible with funding from the International Women's Media Foundation's Howard G. Buffett Fund for Women Journalists. Kyra Gurney's reporting was made possible with data training from the Education Writers Association. Interviews with students in the SMA program were conducted during the 2016-17 school year as part of a long-term project.
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