• by Pam McCollum, Ph.D. and Juanita García, M.A. • IDRA Newsletter • May 1996 • 

Juanita GarciaPam McCollum

The lives of secondary level immigrant students are extremely complex because they undergo change in many dimensions in their lives at once. Not only are they grappling with obvious linguistic and cultural differences, but they must also learn the institutional culture of school in order to be successful. Less visible, but equally important are the developmental changes they are undergoing as they approach adulthood. These are all formidable tasks to be accomplished within the four-year time frame of high school, and thus, drop out rates for immigrant students are high.

Problems contributing to the high drop out rates are the following:

  • Shortage of school personnel trained to meet the specific needs of secondary immigrant students;
  • A school structure that does not ensure smooth transitions from program to program, school to school, or school to work;
  • A school system that fails to give immigrant students access to academic concepts and skills;
  • Lack of appropriate assessment policies and procedures for immigrant students;
  • Few curricular and programmatic alternatives for late entrant students who need to develop language, academic and life skills to prepare them for options beyond high school;
  • Little support for school staff (financial resources or extra time) to work together to make necessary changes (Center for Applied Linguistics, 1996).

This article is intended to share the knowledge of three successful, experienced school principals who direct schools with large populations of recent immigrant students. Unlike many who view immigrant education negatively, these principals have a history of approaching the education of immigrant students in ways that ease their entry into a sometimes unwelcoming school system. These principals are: Clyde Hough of Jane Long Middle School in Houston, Texas; Tonie Kreye of Guillen Middle School in El Paso, Texas; and Paul Strelzin of Bowie High School in El Paso, Texas.

We came to know these principals through their involvement with the Texas Immigrant Education Collaborative (TIEC), which began in 1994 and is funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Program in Immigrant Education. IDRA is one of four recipients of funding for projects designed to improve immigrant education through three broad goals:

  • improving English language and literacy development;
  • improving mastery of academic content and skills; and
  • improving access to post-secondary opportunities (including preparation for higher education and the world of work).

The project is conducted through implementation teams composed of teachers, administrators, district personnel, representatives from higher education, the business community and community-based organizations. The teams work to address the three broad goals of the project as well as to articulate objectives that are specific to each site (see articles on Pages 3 and 4).

About the Schools and Principals

Bowie High School

is a large urban high school with an enrollment of 1658 students, 99.9 percent of whom are of Mexican background and 12 percent of whom are recent immigrants. The school is located in the Segundo Barrio which has long been a port of entry for Mexican immigrants. The land Bowie is built on actually belonged to Mexico in recent decades due to the meandering of the Rio Grande River. In 1973, the Chamizal Treaty settled the territorial dispute, and Bowie High School was built on part of the land that reverted to the United States. The campus is unique because it resembles a junior college more than a traditional high school, with separate buildings and a common area with memorials and statues (see also article on Page 3).

Paul Strelzin has been the principal of Bowie High School for four years and prides himself on Bowie High School’s academic achievements and the activities it provides for students. The school’s calculator club, math team, drama department, mariachis and ballet folórico are well known throughout the region and the state. Paul is a native of Brooklyn, New York, but considers himself a naturalized “El Pasoan.” He is an advocate of immigrant education and has a long history of fighting for educational equity for Hispanic and minority students in El Paso. He is a frequent speaker on educational issues.

Guillen Middle School

was formerly Bowie High School. In 1973, when the new Bowie High School building was opened, the old building became Guillen Middle School. The school originally opened in 1922 and is one of the oldest schools in El Paso. It has an enrollment of 950 students, 100 percent of whom are Hispanic in origin and 16 percent of whom are classified as recent immigrants. The school serves students in grades seven and eight.

Guillen Middle School

has the distinction of having been reconstituted, or “rebuilt from the ground up,” within the last year. Last spring, the El Paso district superintendent closed the school and required all faculty and staff to reapply for their jobs. All positions were open to anyone who wished to apply and wished to work toward forging a “new Guillen” that would improve student academic performance and be more responsive to the needs of the community (see also article on Page 3).

Tonie Kreye, formerly the assistant principal at Bowie High School, was selected as the new principal of Guillen Middle School. Tonie has assembled a staff of committed educators who share a common vision regarding where the school will be in the year 2000. Tonie is Mexican American and grew up in the Segundo Barrio, graduated from Bowie High School and believes deeply in returning some of what she has gained to her community. She says she is a product of the Segundo Barrio and is extremely proud to be able to work as a school principal and serve as a role model to students.

She says, “I want my students to realize that anything is possible if we want it bad enough, but also that education and determination are two ingredients necessary to achieve our goals.”

Guillen Middle School faculty are working closely with faculty from the University of Texas at El Paso who are aiding them in their restructuring effort as part of the Texas Immigrant Education Collaborative.

Jane Long Middle School

is located in southwest Houston in an area known as Bellaire that was once an enclave for young professionals until the oil bust of the 1980s. The abundant apartment buildings in the area are now home to hundreds of immigrant families who have changed the character of the neighborhood. The school has an enrollment of 1700 students, 50 percent of whom are recent immigrants. Jane Long Middle School is an international school with students from 30 different nationalities in attendance. Seventy-two percent of the students are of Hispanic origin, 15 percent are Anglo American, 5 percent are African American and 6 percent are classified as other (see also article on Page 3).

The principal, Clyde Hough, is in his first year as the principal of Jane Long Middle School and is an energetic advocate for immigrant education. He has a vision for the education of immigrant students that includes academic and social support through a variety of school services. An example of such support is the Jane Long Middle School medical clinic which was recently donated by a local hospital and is staffed by a nurse practitioner, a social worker and doctor who sees students free of charge.

Despite the many complexities involved in educating immigrant students, these three principals have taken the initiative to implement policies and programs that nurture and support immigrant students as they adjust to a new language, culture and school system. They all share the common belief that immigrant students can succeed academically given the proper support. The following responses from the three principals were obtained in interviews we conducted with them this spring regarding their views on immigrant education (Q – questioner, CH – Clyde Hough, TK – Tonie Kreye, PS – Paul Strelzin).

Q: Reflecting on your course work and your course of study, were you adequately prepared to deal with a school with large immigrant populations?

PS: In a nut shell, no. No course work that I ever took in my master’s in education and then in my midmanagement certificate ever prepared me for dealing with immigrant students.

CH: My formal training in midmanagement did not deal with specific issues of immigrant education, only with at-risk students in general. Even as recently as three years ago when I attended a Harvard principal’s seminar, not one word was mentioned about immigrant education. Very little was mentioned about limited-English-proficient (LEP) students in general.

TK: [Emphatically] Not at all! I don’t know if anybody can teach one to be sensitive, but I think that if we were to have a class where issues on immigrant students or immigrant populations are addressed, that might make us more sensitive to their plight. We need to know about educational concepts in Mexico so that we can understand where the students are coming from and not feel that, because they are coming from Mexico, they are dumb, so we’re going to put them in the dummy class. That attitude, unfortunately, is all too common.

Q: What information have you gained that you think other administrators need to know in order to meet the needs of immigrant students?

[The areas in which the three principals felt accommodations need to be made to provide appropriate services for immigrant students were the following: registration, student records, assessment and placement, and counseling services.]

PS: Well, I think that more time needs to be set aside for immigrant student intake and registration. A lot of administrators want to do registration very quickly. I guess you get a badge and win a medal if you’re that guy who can do the registration and send someone through the line in 20 minutes. Registration for an incoming immigrant student is not going to get done in a half hour. It’s going to take many hours in the course of a day. There are a lot of things that need to be accomplished, so you have to be prepared to put the time and the effort into it and to have a full staff ready and able.

CH: My observations have been that you have to modify placement procedures and spend time interviewing parents and students about educational careers. You’ll find that sometimes there are significant gaps – [such as] two or three years – because of where they lived. Social disruptions that some students may have experienced in Central America for example, also contribute to these educational gaps.

Our traditional LEP program is set up for kids from Mexico. Those kids adapt well. The ones from large cities adapt quickly to [U.S.] American culture. They have relatives and friends here. However, the kids from Central America, the Middle East and Africa have a far greater level of adjustment to make. People don’t leave their homeland if they’re comfortable. They leave for a reason. Our ancestors left their homelands because of lack of opportunity, social upheaval and war. They left to find a better place.

TK: Well, many of them don’t have records with them. If they come from a rural school, they hardly ever have records with them. If they come right across the border from Juarez schools, they do have their records with them, but our ESL counselor sits down and talks to the parents and we let them know what the policies are. We let them know about residency policies. We don’t ask for any sort of INS documentation. We let them know however, that the address they give us will be checked, because we’re very clear with regard to the policies of the district.

PS: What, primarily, you are asking the student for is a birth certificate, a shot record and a record from a previous school. Administrators used to ask for proof of citizenship which cannot be done. It’s not up to a high school or grade school administrator to ask a child their citizenship. It’s none of our business, and, really what it basically comes down to is, we can’t deny children attendance at our school if they are homeless and tell us that they live in our area.

We had a family that came into El Paso and stayed with a Catholic Services Annunciation House. They fled Nicaragua where both parents were killed. The students didn’t stop off at the local school to get a drop out record.

We find it very difficult to obtain records. We aren’t afraid to make phone calls even to Mexico or even South America. The key thing is we need to have at least a birth certificate so we know where we stand as far as chronological age, and then we deal from there. Records are very, very tough to come by.

CH: If a kid has records, he or she falls into the guidelines. If not, he or she is placed in a chronologically age appropriate grade level. Another option is the newcomers class which is comprised of students who are under schooled recent immigrants. There, they learn English and fill in skill gaps.

Q: What is involved in checking the student’s address?

TK: We have a field worker who goes out and checks to make sure that the address that was given is one that the parent and the student occupies. He goes there anytime between 5:00 a.m. or 10:00 a.m. If they are not residing at the address that they give us, then I have an option as a principal to ask for records of bill payments and tell them they need to make residency here legal.

PS: We have field workers that go on home visits. Most parents work, so it’s difficult to find anyone at home. We go there many times. In a case where a student is found not to be living at the address, we give them five days to appeal due to an extenuating circumstance.

Q: How are immigrant students appropriately placed in classes?

PS: That’s a very difficult issue, but there at Bowie, we find it fairly easy because we have a large number of classes that we can place an immigrant student in. We have different programs such as the High Intensity Language Training (HILT) program and our newcomer program for under schooled recent immigrants.

I think a lot of administrators will find it very difficult to place immigrant students in the right classroom setting. Age and grade placement are not the way to go. You must place a student on where ability lies, and a lot of administrators in secondary schools don’t want to be bothered with that. They get a child who is 16 years old and they immediately say, “OK, put him in a freshman class”; “Put him in a sophomore class, give him a mixed number of credits.” That’s not the way to do it. You’ve got to place them not chronologically but according to their ability level so they don’t fall behind.

TK: At our school, we have an ESL counselor who speaks to the parents and in an informal interview to see where the student is coming from. If, after the interview, we feel that the student belongs in the newcomers program we place him or her there pending the district testing.

CH: If a student has been in school and has a working knowledge of English, he or she is placed in ESL Level 1. If the student comes in and has gaps, or he or she has a functional literacy level in the home language, he or she is placed in the newcomers class. That student’s goal is to move into the beginning ESL class. Some students can go into ESL Level 1, 2 or 3. If a student is struggling in ESL 1, he or she is an ideal candidate for the newcomers class.

There is a district-wide placement system for all LEPs. Rather than reinvent the system, we add to or build in steps to identify kids that fall outside the guidelines. We provide the extensive interview option to the standard LAS [Language Assessment Scale] test.

[Note: All three sites have different methods of assessing their students. Language assessment is not an exact science, and the results of any language assessment instrument may need to be adjusted. Students should be monitored for a given period to observe the appropriateness of class placement. During that time, adjustments can be made to placement decisions. The Newcomers Centers have provided a valuable curriculum option for instructing under schooled students. Students may attend for one year, after which time, they transition to regular ESL classes.]

Q: What kind of counseling services are available, or should be available, for recent immigrant students?

PS: We have more programs than a lot of schools because we have been able to use Title I funds and funds from other grants and to work with IDRA and the Mellon Foundation. So we have been able to bring on more counselors. We have two counselors per se who work with our ESL students and newcomer students. We also have two at-risk coordinators assigned to that program alone. So we’re doing more counseling, and we feel that we need to do a lot of counseling with these new students. Resources mean that you need extra counselors, extra personnel to work with students.

CH: Of our four counselors, three are bilingual, one per grade level. The sixth grade counselor is not bilingual, however the sixth grade assistant principal is bilingual. The at-risk coordinator helps to fill in the gaps. Also, as part of a partnership, we have a full-time social worker who provides us with a link to the home.

Q: Will you speak to the issue of what the social and family needs of recent immigrant students are and how you are trying help students in this area?

PS: You get an immigrant student, and you just don’t put them in a classroom. You have to find out: Do they have clothes to wear? Do the parents need a job? Do we need to go out and help them? Do they have the water on in their house? Are they wearing the right type of shoes? Do they have the right type of clothes for this climate?

In 95 percent of the cases there’s a monetary problem in immigrant homes. So we need to educate administrators and teachers that it’s just a lot more than classroom work. We need to be attuned to the social services needed.

CH: There are some big things that we see. For many of the immigrant families from Central America and Africa, this is a very overwhelming, urban environment. A huge urban school system, large schools. Long [Middle School] is larger than many of the villages they come from. In order to support the family unit, the kids quickly adapt to [US] American culture and urban scene. They are quick to learn verbal English. You start to see role reversals. The kids become interpreters at clinics, for the apartment manager, etc. The role of the student expands, and they begin to assume adult responsibilities. Many are not prepared for this. They sometimes take advantage of the parents’ lack of knowledge. We’ve responded to that by ensuring that we have bilingual counselors and teachers and a bilingual social worker. The social worker works very closely with the families, offering assistance not only with responsibilities, but also providing support and helping parents to maintain their effectiveness as parents.

TK: Immigrant families are in need of an array of social services that are not traditionally provided by the school. You have to go to outside agencies for that, and that is very difficult because of the cutbacks in social services. For those that remain, there is a very long waiting list. We’re trying to meet some of our parents’ needs through our very strong PTA that is providing parenting classes. The focus of the classes is to inform them where they can go to obtain help in such areas as getting their medical records brought up to date and where they can go when they find themselves in a crisis.

Q: What characteristics do you look for in hiring faculty to work with immigrant students?

TK: The first thing I look for is somebody who knows the community, because if you don’t know who you service, how can you meet their needs? Another question I ask is, what strategies are you going to use to help students not only cope with a change in curriculum but also a change in environment and language? Another thing I look for is their commitment to after school extracurricular activities because a lot of these kids don’t have much to go home to. So, if you are willing to sponsor a club, if you’re willing to do something extracurricular, that’s also an indication that you are willing to work. The fact that you care enough to take time from your everyday 8:00 to 3:30 job is indicative that if you don’t know enough, you are willing to learn.

One of the things that I’ve asked my faculty to obtain is an ESL endorsement. Since we are essentially an ESL school where all students speak English as a second language, all our teachers need to know how to teach content based ESL. Eventually, I would like everyone to get a gifted and talented endorsement. I would like to discontinue the honors classes and have everyone teach a gifted and talented curriculum. The higher the expectations, the higher students will reach.

The views of these three successful principals who are creating innovations in immigrant education demonstrate how educators need to be responsive to students’ situations. While they did not receive formal instruction or preparation on “best practices” in immigrant education, they have been guided by sound principles regarding the education of limited-English-proficient students and a vision of schooling that produces success for all students. They provide a lead that others would do well to follow. We, at IDRA, feel fortunate to be associated with them through the Texas Immigrant Education Collaborative and thank them for sharing their views.


Center for Applied Linguistics. Program in Immigrant Education (Washington, D.C., 1996).

Dr. Pam McCollum is a senior education associate in the IDRA Division of Professional Development. Juanita García is an education associate in the IDRA Division of Professional Development. Comments and questions may be sent via e-mail to feedback@idra.org.

[©1996, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the May 1996 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]