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Winter Reading: Books by TC Faculty

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Lesley Bartlett (TC file photo)

Lesley Bartlett (TC file photo)

The Language of School Success


By Siddhartha Mitter


Lesley Bartlett and Ofelia García were conducting research on the educational trajectories of Latino students when they spotted an intriguing anomaly in at a high school in Washington Heights, in upper Manhattan.

Bartlett, Associate Professor in TC’s department of International and Transcultural Studies, and García, a former TC faculty member who is now a professor of urban education at CUNY’s Graduate Center, were looking at national high school completion rates, which a 2001 study estimated at just 63 percent for Latinos. New York City’s rate was even lower: between 50 and 60 percent. Amid this picture, Gregorio Luperón High School stood out, graduating 70 to 80 percent of its students. Not only that: the Luperón students were mostly ‘newcomers’ -- recent arrivals from the Dominican Republic and elsewhere, whose schooling in their own countries typically had been interrupted.

“We wondered, ‘What is it that this school does with newcomers?’” Barlett says. “‘What do they do to get them through?’ That was the puzzle that motivated our inquiry.”

So began a four-year study in which Bartlett and García immersed themselves in the Luperón community, observing classes and interviewing students, teachers, administrators and family members to develop a full panorama of the school and its success at bucking a dismal trend.

Their findings are presented in Additive Schooling in Subtractive Times: Bilingual Education and Dominican Immigrant Youth in the Heights (Vanderbilt University Press, 2011). The book is simultaneously the story of how the school, founded in 1994, has negotiated New York City and state education policy; an anthropology of the Luperón school community; and a contribution to scholarship on bilingual education at a time when bilingual programs are more often cut than created.

Luperón itself is not merely a bilingual school; rather, it practices what Bartlett and García call “translanguaging”—an adaptive method by which teachers and students work in two languages as necessary, developing skills and functioning in both. Students prepare for Regents exams in both English and Spanish. 

“It takes savvy and committed educators to figure out how to set up and protect those models—not only the institutions, but the pedagogical and curricular choices -- at a time when there’s increasing emphasis on very narrow measures of teacher quality and student learning, Regents and other standard tests,” Bartlett says.

The Luperón team clearly meets those criteria. The school’s co-founders were rooted in the Heights community and its faculty and staff share what Bartlett calls “a cultural, social and political commitment to not only the students but their families.” And while life at the school has grown from a two-year “newcomer school” to a four-year high school with more non-newcomer youth and all the pressures of standardized testing and assessment -- a veteran core group, known as “los pioneros,” have kept things anchored. “They socialize new faculty and staff into that shared vision,” Bartlett says.

Yet as successful as Luperón has been, it is just one school, and, as a chapter in Additive Schooling documents through interviews, its graduates emerge into a work and higher-education landscape in which low-income Latino immigrants face many obstacles.

“The school piece is the first piece but it alone is not enough,” Bartlett says. “We have to figure out the school-to-work transitional model, as well as school-to-further schooling, to meet the needs of this specific population.”

Bartlett and García believe Luperón’s success in educating immigrant youth can be replicated, and in their concluding chapter they list key ingredients for doing so. Among these are community involvement, highly motivated staff, a school culture of engagement, and “additive” schooling that builds social capital among and between students and teachers in numerous ways.

All of those attributes combine to produce what Bartlett says may be Luperón’s ultimate strength: “This was a strikingly different school culture. The students had a really strong sense of belonging to the school.”


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