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A new program run by the City University of New York will offer just what New York lacks: a free opportunity for kids who didn’t finish high school to get their GEDs or diplomas.

With lawsuits now pending against two city schools accused of illegally kicking out low-performing students, education advocates say the timing couldn’t be better. CUNY Preparatory Transitional High School, a Bronx-based program run by CUNY, the city’s Department of Youth and Community Development and the Department of Education will open its doors October 29.

A full-time, one-year program, CUNY Prep has 250 spots for low-income city teens between the ages of 16 and 18 who have not attended school for at least six months.

“We’re seeing very motivated students who are still quite young,” said CUNY spokesperson Michael Arenas. “This way they are able to pick themselves back up again.”

Arenas says the program will help prepare its students for community college enrollment. “More than in a GED class, these kids will be sharpening writing skills, expanding math skills,” he said. “They’ll be transitioning to the next level.”

There’s just one catch: Funding for CUNY Prep comes entirely from federal dollars allocated to youth through the Workforce Investment Act (WIA). That means there’s no strain on municipal funds, but it also means that the program has to play by federal rules–which restrict all WIA programs to documented U.S. citizens and permanent residents.

“It makes complete sense,” says Seth Turner of the National Youth Employment Coalition. “If you don’t have a green card, there’s no sense in being in a workforce training program. Why be in a program if you can’t get a job when you get out?”

But, according to Arenas, CUNY Prep is more academic than vocational. “It’s really unfortunate because English Language Learners would benefit greatly from the program,” said Sonal Patel, an attorney at Advocates for Children, a legal aid group. A study conducted for the Department of Education found that 31.5 percent of English Language Learners leave high school without finishing.

“If it’s a publicly funded program,” Patel said, “the school should not be able to turn away anyone.”

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