The immigration status and finances of hundreds of foreign students enrolled at a popular English language school were thrown into jeopardy after the 44-year-old institution abruptly shuttered this week.
Students at the American Language Communications Center (ALCC) on West 36th St. in Manhattan first heard the rumors by text, WhatsApp and phone on Tuesday afternoon: Classes were cancelled and the school would close, several told THE CITY.
"For those that have made payment, I am sorry to tell you that we are not able to make any refunds." — Peter Pachter, ALCC representative
Many did not find out the news until they arrived for classes on Wednesday – and were greeted by signs posted in the halls that read “ALL CLASSES CANCELLED.”
Florian Lobermayer, 28, of France, found out about the closure Tuesday after he went to pay tuition for a new 10-week course, only to be turned away at the cashier’s desk.
“She told me, ‘I am so sorry, we can’t take your cash.’ And I said, ‘Why?’ … She told me, ‘Go speak with your adjuncts,’ ” he said.
Without explaining why the school is closing, an ALCC representative told school staff in a letter obtained by THE CITY that tuition would not be paid back to students.
“We are not able to make any refunds,” the letter from ALCC’s Peter Pachter read.
Tears and Fears in the Halls
The move left many in limbo, particularly students who are able to legally remain in the United States because they hold a student visa. To keep their visas current, students must transfer to a new school, they said.
In the main office of the school on Wednesday, staff could barely keep up with the deluge of requests for transfer forms, other documentation and information from a chaotic crowd of panicked people, some in tears, sharing their fears in a dozen or more languages.
“Please be quiet so everybody can get the chance of getting the papers!” one student shouted over the crowd.
The staff turned students away just before 5 p.m., telling them to come back the next morning at 9 a.m. Many students said they were informed the office of the school would close for good as of Friday.
Neither the educational director of the school nor any staff members or teachers would answer questions about the closure, instead referring inquiries to ALCC’s CEO Jean Pachter. He could not be reached for comment. Calls and emails to ALCC went unanswered.
Officials from the New York State Education Department, which regulates language schools, said the agency sent a team to ALCC to assess the situation and assist students.
‘Everybody Needs to Transfer’
Nilton Silva, 30, of Brazil, was lucky enough to get all his documents to help him transfer to English-language classes at another school. But many other students didn’t, he said, creating what he called “the bomb exploding.”
“Everybody needs to transfer in three days,” Silva said. “And it’s not going to be enough. A lot of people are going to be illegal here because of lack of information.”
Zoni, a competing English-language school, had representatives waiting outside the ALCC building to ply departing students with flyers and information about how to enroll.
The Zoni school also reached out to ALCC students on Facebook, posting Wednesday that it would honor already-paid tuition from ALCC. “Our doors are wide open to help you,” the message read.
Maribel Alanso, 28, of Colombia, went that route, transferring to Zoni so she can legally stay in the U.S. and keep studying English. She told THE CITY she had just paid about $1,000 to ALCC last week and has no idea whether she’ll get that money back.
Carol Viana, 36, is in a worse bind. The Brazil native said she didn’t have the cash to enroll in a new school — unless she gets her money back from ALCC.
“I can’t have thousands of dollars … I can’t,” said Viana, who lives with her 10-year-old daughter on the Upper West Side. “It’s a nightmare in about 24 hours.”
Students seeking tuition refunds were told by ALCC staff to file a complaint with the New York State Education Department’s Bureau of Proprietary School Supervision. The department told THE CITY that students who file a complaint may be entitled to a refund through the state’s Tuition Reimbursement Fund.
Education Department complaint forms were plentiful in the school office on Wednesday, and students passed them around in stacks.
This story has been updated with details provided in an ALCC letter and from the state Education Department.
ALCC students: How were you notified about the school’s closure? Is your immigration status at stake as a result? Are you seeking a refund? We’d like to talk to you. Email reporter Rachel Holliday Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org or text/WhatsApp 718-866-8674.
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