Riverhead BOCES program launched to help districts, immigrant teens

Culinary instructor Eric Rickmers talk to the new students in the commercial kitchen Monday afternoon. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch)
Culinary instructor Eric Rickmers talks to the new students in the Riverhead school’s commercial kitchen Monday afternoon. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch)

Monday marked the first day in a new Riverhead school for a small group of teens living in a country still very new to them.

At the Eastern Suffolk BOCES Alternative High School English Language Learner Program, teenagers referred to as SIFE students — or students with interrupted formal education — will learn English and math and acquire job skills such as culinary arts and maintenance work, BOCES officials said.

“They need a chance at a career,” said Matthew Matera, a divisional administrator for special education at Eastern Suffolk BOCES, which runs the program. “These are students who are older, and getting a Regents diploma is not really feasible. Sometimes they haven’t had any formal education since the second or third grade in their home countries, so some of them are not even that literate in their own language.”

Many children and teens from Central America entered U.S. public school systems last year as part of the influx of what became known as “border children” — young people leaving their violence-plagued home countries in droves.

The BOCES program was developed to help eastern Suffolk districts cope with that influx.

In the last months of the 2013-14 school year, the Riverhead district gained 66 English as a Second Language students, bringing its total to 781. Another 91 registered last summer — 60 of them in the final two weeks before school started — bumping total ESL enrollment to 875. By comparison, the Riverhead district had only 378 ESL students in 2005.

The BOCES English Learner Program will operate Mondays through Thursdays from 3 to 7 p.m. at the Harry B. Ward Technical Center on North Griffing Avenue. The school is expected to serve mostly Central American students who recently entered local districts but cannot earn a Regents Diploma — either because they are too old to compile the required credits before turning 21, which is the cutoff age for attending New York public schools, or because they lack previous education that would otherwise have prepared them for high school.

The program is supported by seven faculty members and has enough space to accommodate up to 40 students, said Gina Reilly, director of special eduction for Eastern Suffolk BOCES.

“The primary focus of the program is about transition and helping them become productive members of society,” she said Tuesday. “It was a great first day. The students were so happy to be there. They really enjoyed the culinary piece of it, the hands-on portion of the program.”

David Wicks, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction for the Riverhead Central School District, said Riverhead administrators and officials from other districts contacted BOCES in the fall about how to help these young people.

“It was a group of districts” that approached BOCES, Mr. Wicks said. “We said, ‘Can we think creatively to develop a program that would meet the needs to the districts, but also, more importantly, meet the needs of the students that were coming to us in order to better prepare them to be successful here?’ And this program came out of multiple meetings and conversations through the first half of the [school] year. The students are going to benefit greatly from this.”

The expectation is that the program will grow with publicity and as more eligible students enter into it, including those who might already dropped out of local schools due to the frustration of impenetrable course work, officials said.

“The situation became that their needs were so specific, and we didn’t have the resources,” Mr. Wicks said. “They would be in classes that weren’t academically appropriate for them. They were in classes with other kids who had completed eighth grade, but a lot of these students had not. They just weren’t prepared, but the teachers were doing their best.”

One of those teachers, English as a Second Language instructor Denise Stevenson, will serve as principal of the new program while still working at her day job, so to speak, in the Riverhead public schools, Mr. Wicks said.

Four students of varying ages — all of them currently enrolled in the Riverhead district — showed up for class at the H.B. Ward center Monday. They began the day by meeting culinary arts instructor Eric Rickmers in the building’s commercial kitchen.

Mr. Rickmers previously taught ESL classes in Brooklyn and has also been a chef at the Jamesport Manor Inn in Jamesport.

Speaking in English, he told the students about the equipment, gave some instructions on how to pick the best produce and talked about getting them all uniforms.

Then he asked if they liked to cook. They all nodded that they did.

[email protected]

with Barbaraellen Koch