SIFE students can be successful

Inside the making of a professional development video in NYC

12/18/2013  |  Ken Browne

The premier this summer of “SIFE: MEETING THE CHALLENGE,” at the historic Tweed Courthouse headquarters of the NYC Dept. of Education brought a full conference room of administrators and teachers from the NYC Public Schools. Hosted by the Office of ELLs, the screening was introduced by the Chief Executive Officer of OELLS, Angelica Infante, and included a panel discussion by the principals from the three schools featured in the film. 

The 19-minute film profiles success stories about students with interrupted formal education (SIFE) in three NYC schools. As producer of the film I felt honored to make a contribution in supporting one of the highest need segments of the 180,000 ELLs student population in NYC. Roughly one out of every 10 ELLs is a SIFE, with a total of about 18,000 in NYC. While the majority is Spanish speaking, over 40 percent are native speakers of Chinese, Haitian Creole, Arabic, Bengali, and other languages from around the world.

Having produced professional development (PD) videos for the NYC Office of ELLS since 2000, I have had the opportunity to learn about this growing and challenging part of the school population. My first assignment was an orientation video for parents of ELLs, The Parent Connection. What made this assignment unique in my experience was the requirement that the video be produced in 12 different language versions! Why those 12, I wondered? Because New York State mandates that information for families of ELLS be provided, in the native language, when an immigrant (language) group reaches three percent of a district student population. For me as producer, it was a great experience to work with 12 teams of translators and voice over talents. It almost felt like my own “around the world in 80 days.” Since then my PD video assignments for the ELLs have included Dual Language Learning, Early Literacy Assessment (in Spanish), Language Allocation Policy, and two updated versions of the Parent Connection video, each featuring a new NYC Schools Chancellor.

I was familiar with SIFE and knew that the term meant Students with Interrupted Formal Education. In New York State a SIFE is defined as a student who:

  • Comes from a home where a language other than English is spoken
  • Has at least a two year gap in formal schooling
  • Functions at least two years below expected grade level
  • May be pre-literate in their native language

How a student becomes a SIFE is an intriguing part of the story, as students are categorized SIFE for a variety of reasons — whether economic, political or due to natural disaster. Each story has its own twist, revealing the challenges faced by children in many parts of the world today. But it wasn’t until meeting Helen from Thailand, Jean from the Dominican Republic, and Ramiro from Mexico, that I understood the full impact of that designation. Each of these students, and their schools, were selected by the Office of ELLs to represent the potential of SIFE, when given the opportunity and “best practices” of an education in the NYC schools. Planning the production in 2012 with Rachel Hoff and Angelica Infante at the Office of ELLS, I sensed that some truly inspiring stories were in store for the audience of the film.

Brooklyn International High School and Helen

In our first meeting to plan the video, I heard about Helen — a SIFE student at Brooklyn International High School (BIHS) who had arrived at the school via the International Rescue Committee. Prior to her placement at BIHS, Helen had spent two years as a Burmese refugee in a refugee camp in Thailand. At an ELLs conference on SIFE, educators heard Helen share her story of escape, her fight to survive in the camp as a child, and her dream of an education. Helen’s story inspired the Office of ELLs staff to disseminate her story and others in a “best practices” video for the field. Our first location was Brooklyn International where we interviewed the principals, teachers, and some students, as well as selected classroom and guidance activities representative of the school approach to SIFE. As I would hear throughout all the interviews about SIFE, one theme about success with SIFE echoed at all the schools we filmed — socio-emotional support was the key to academic success. These dedicated educators, several of whom had served in the Peace Corps, told me that a gap in schooling could be a source of shame and trauma for a SIFE. Aissatou from West Africa, who appears in the film, told us that she pretended to understand her classes for the first year, until she finally asked for help. Therefore, creating a supportive environment facilitated the catching up process academically.

Harbor Heights Middle School

Located in Upper Manhattan, Harbor Heights Middle School (HHMS) provides a transitional bilingual program for a primarily Spanish speaking ELLS student population from the Dominican Republic — about 40 percent are SIFE. To help deal with the effects of childhoods often marked by disruption, Harbor Heights provides an environment with visible signs of order and routine. Students wear uniforms and walk in two lane hallways marked in the building. The school pays a lot of attention to its intake and identification process, as students are often brought in by adults other than their parents, who may not know the student’s school history. An advisory system is at the center of the schools’ approach in making sure students receive support both inside and outside the classroom. The school uses monthly awards ceremonies to reinforce the supportive environment.

Our crew witnessed a moving scene in which teachers read short tributes to award winners, telling of challenges the students have overcome to attain perfect attendance or academic achievement. Hearing their stories shared with the school community brought several students (some separated from families in native lands) to tears. The SIFE student selected for our cameras to follow had a remarkable “back-story.” Ramiro came to HHMS one day with his older sister. The staff learned that while they were from Mexico, Ramiro was not Spanish speaking. He spoke Mixteco, an indigenous language found in the more rural parts of his home state, Guerrero. In addition, Ramiro had no formal schooling at all. HHMS at first felt their school was not the right place for this student, but several teachers believed HHMS was indeed the best placement for him. Telling his story was one of the high points in the production!

Manhattan Bridges High School

Manhattan Bridges High School (MBHS) is in the heart of Manhattan — just a few blocks west of Times Square — one of four schools cohabitating on separate floors in one of the massive high school buildings built by NYC in the 1970s. Like Harbor Heights, MBHS uses a transitional bilingual program for its primarily immigrant ELLs population. In fact MBHS receives many students from Harbor Heights who have a short subway ride from their upper Manhattan neighborhood. And, like Harbor Heights, MBHS receives a large number of SIFE — 43 percent of students. The first thing I heard from Assistant Principal Kathy Fine about the MBHS approach to SIFE, is that “a supportive environment works wonders.” An eloquent advocate for this group of students, Ms. Fine, points to the socio-emotional aspects of SIFE that are essential to understand before a school can help them academically. They often come from broken families; they have moved and missed school, some live with family members they have never met. Several arrive at the school with traumatic personal stories — such as Jean, a young man from the Dominican Republic who came to MBHS as a ninth grader who was also a single parent. A few weeks after we filmed, Jean was one of 193 NYC high school seniors named as a “Remarkable Graduate” by Chancellor Dennis Walcott.

Before leaving the school with our crew, Ms. Fine makes sure to point out a sign in the hallway showing the students with perfect attendance. To Ms. Fine, this record of coming to school by SIFE students who still lack basic English language skills is truly inspiring. “Its so gratifying to see the students who come in with so many challenges really leaving and ready to take the world by storm,” Ms. Fine said.

Ken Browne is a documentary film producer. He has helped institutions tell their success stories in film/video, including the Educational Alliance at Brown University, the NYC Department of Education, Insideschools at the New School University, Fashion Institute of Technology SUNY and Pace University. For more information, visit
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