Miami-Dade School Board orders review of GED program for immigrant teens

Troubled by stories of immigrant teens who say they were steered away from a traditional high school education, the Miami-Dade County School Board has directed the school district to take a hard look at how it educates newly arrived students.

Board member Steve Gallon proposed an initiative to assess and evaluate programs given to these students, as well as outline guidelines and procedures for enrollment. The item requires the board to be updated on the findings by September and be provided with an annual report.

It was backed by four other school board members and unanimously passed at Wednesday's school board meeting. The board also supported other items related to unaccompanied immigrant students held at a Homestead facility.

Gallon said he drafted the item after reading a Miami Herald/el Nuevo Herald investigation published last month that chronicled how teens were often pushed into adult education programs where they take classes in Spanish to prepare for the Spanish GED (General Education Development). Critics say schools worry that students with limited English skills will negatively impact graduation rates and say nontraditional programs are separate and unequal.

Roughly 1,000 of the 5,000 immigrant teens who arrived this past school year ended up in a Spanish-language GED program instead of a regular high school. Fewer than a third of the students enrolled in the program passed the GED during the 2016-2017 school year, according to information provided by the district..

"It's not like a job interview," Gallon told the Herald. "Immigrant students and any other students don't have to apply for admission to receive a public education."

The Southern Poverty Law Center, a national civil rights advocacy group based in Montgomery, Alabama, recently sent a demand letter to the school district to address "the systemic denial of enrollment" to thousands of immigrant teens still learning English. Gallon said he did not consult with the SPLC when drafting the item.

Gallon's item highlighted how Success Management Academies, which were designed to make it easier for 16- and 17-year-old immigrants to get high school equivalency diplomas, hadn't undergone an evaluation in 10 years. He wrote that there are other best practices the district could look into that holistically address issues these students may face, such as linguistic and cultural barriers.

Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said the district is already evaluating its procedures, conducting site visits and working to ensure students and their families know their options. He said fliers have been printed and posters with education options in three languages — English, Spanish and Creole — have been put up in schools.

"This is a district where a huge percentage of our kids is immigrants. We have over 80,000 students born outside of this country," he said. "At all levels we strive to provide them the best possible free education. There’s always room for improvement."

Miami-Dade County's Board of County Commissioners has advocated for the Florida Department of Education to revise its Every Student Succeeds Act plan submitted to the federal government in September. The U.S. Department of Education found that the state does not provide a plan for English language learners to be tested in their native language.

New research examining U.S. National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) data suggests that while multilingual students are progressing on standardized tests, school systems should focus more on students who successfully pass through English language learner programs and master proficiency.

Maria Rodríguez, director of the Florida Immigrant Coalition, said the school system is one of the first steps in the integration of immigrant families in a new country.

"It will have implications in the lives of immigrants for decades, and we all benefit from giving immigrant students the best possible opportunity," she said. "This is the way we can ensure that everyone has equal access and equal protection [in the school system], which is is what we aspire to as a nation."

El Nuevo Herald reporter Brenda Medina contributed to this report.
Colleen Wright can be reached at 305-376-3003 and @Colleen_Wright.
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