Page last updated at 06:23 GMT, Sunday, 29 March 2009 07:23 UK

New York's school for immigrants

By Matt Wells
BBC News, New York

A refugee from Bhutan, a bright-eyed student from the Dominican Republic and a teenage mother from the small West African country of Guinea sit patiently in their neat school uniforms.

Ellis Preparatory Academy students (from L) Luis Diaz, Raghu Chimorriya and Housseynatou Sow
The students at Ellis come from all over the world

They are all students at a newly-opened school in the South Bronx, tailoring itself to the l needs of immigrants in their late-teens.

Ellis Preparatory Academy takes its name from New York's historic arrival point for immigrants seeking a slice of the American Dream - Ellis Island.

An estimated 150,000 school pupils across the city are classified as English learners, and just over 15,000 of them are barely-literate in their native languages.

Unlocking potential

In her former headship, the principal of Ellis, Norma Vega, watched dozens of these older teenagers who were clearly bright, fail at the first hurdle thanks to complicated home lives and poor English.

Her mission now is to provide an environment and an education that unlocks the real potential of newly-arrived young adults who would otherwise be made to sit in crowded classrooms with younger pupils, learning little.

"They really are amazing kids," says Mrs Vega. "I am a social worker by trade, so I've never had the privilege of being a teacher in the classroom... But it helps you to hire phenomenal people."

Ellis Preparatory Academy student Luis Diaz
This school gives me the opportunity that other school[s] can't give to me
Luis Diaz, pupil

She has brought together a dedicated but small team of teachers who are developing the curriculum and culture of a school that has room for only 85 students.

They already have to turn children away. The city's education department provides the funds, together with private grants, and students are expected to achieve a high school diploma within four years.

In the narrow corridors, Spanish dominates but French as well as Asian and African languages pepper the air.

Raghu Chimorriya, 17, sat down with the BBC, alongside classmates Luis Diaz, from the Dominican Republic, and Housseynatou Sow, from Guinea.

"I'm [a] Bhutanese refugee, and we came here on 2 June, 2008," said Raghu, his date of arrival in the safe haven of America etched on his memory.

"I think about my studies always, so maybe I might accomplish in (the) future," he added.

Pioneering experiment

Housseynatou, 18, is married with a two-year-old child, and she has not yet given up on her native land of Guinea, despite a long legacy of political instability.

"I come to Ellis to learn English," she says with purpose. "I think when I finish my school, if the government change in Guinea, I can go back."

Luis is a soft-spoken but hulking 17-year-old, who says that despite their different backgrounds, the students all get along and help each other learn, out of necessity.

"This school gives me the opportunity that other school[s] can't give to me," he said, admitting that although thousands of young Dominicans go to high schools nearby, their fluent English means that he would be lost.

Ellis Preparatory Academy Principal Norma Vega
Principal Vega has found her experience as a social worker useful

"I can learn about her culture, or his culture, and they can learn about my culture," he added, pointing to his classmates.

But the problems of home constantly intrude on school life. Principal Vega lists four girls who have already left the school since it opened in September, due to pregnancy.

"They went back to their countries," she said, noting that there is only so much the school can do.

"They don't have money for day-care. Their moms can't stay home, because they are also newly-arrived immigrants. They have to work. So it's really hard."

But the teachers are focussed on trying to find solutions for what is a pioneering experiment in city education.

Global studies teacher Jonathan Shank, said he had been drawn to the school after serving in the Peace Corps in Kazakhstan.

"What I like about this school is there's an idea of helping the kid figure out what they want, and then providing that for them," he said.

With the recession in full swing, it is already clear that thousands of dollars will be cut from next year's budget, but Norma Vega is determined to build and expand on her idealistic vision.

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