Racing Against Time

By Joetta Sack-Min

With well-organized stacks of student files and forms, Judy Schilling’s office bears the telltale signs of a high school counselor. A veteran in guiding students through transcripts, Schilling volunteered for one of Norcross High School’s most daunting assignments: navigating its diverse and growing population of English language learners (ELLs) toward graduation. Her job entails a sense of urgency that she deftly yet calmly describes as “a race against time.”

Time is a critical element for Norcross’ immigrant students to learn English, assimilate to a new culture, catch up with class work, and pass the numerous content exams required by both Georgia and the Gwinnett County school district to receive a diploma. Schilling must help these students overcome the major disadvantage of starting school at the secondary level -- research clearly shows the earlier, the better -- within the confines of a suburban district struggling to manage its growth.

With 2,800 students and a labyrinth of hallways and classrooms, Norcross High could be described as a microcosm of the immigration trend that’s swept Gwinnett County and the rest of the U.S. in the past two decades. The school’s student population, which was predominantly white in the early 1990s, has no racial majority; about 30 percent each are of white, black, and Hispanic origin and 10 percent are Asian. Last year, 423 Norcross students were classified as ELLs.

Norcross has won national praise for its International Baccalaureate program and other rigorous classes, and Principal Jonathan Patterson strives to increase the staff’s expectations for ELL students and educate them in the most challenging environments. Still, only 39 percent of Norcross’ ELL students graduate in four years, a figure that he calls “pretty terrible.”

Even within the success stories, some students are undocumented and can’t find legal employment, and many more will be unable to afford higher education, even if they are legal residents who qualify for in-state tuition and Georgia’s HOPE scholarship. One of Schilling’s dreaded tasks is telling students that, despite their hard work and perseverance, she can’t change their fate.

“We see talent and potential every day, and it saddens me to think that ends at high school,” Schilling says.

Would you like to continue reading?
Subscribers please click here to continue reading. If you are not a subscriber, please click here to purchase this article or to obtain a subscription to ASBJ.