Unique High School for Immigrants Offers Real Chance to Join Society

Thi Bui's world history class at Internationals High School in Oakland is buzzing with nervous energy. Her ninth graders are about to have a verbal quiz on what they've learned so far about the Mexican Revolution -- in English.

This routine-sounding activity is actually a very daunting one for her students, some of whom have been in the country for just two or three months. A few can barely utter a full sentence in English, and others are not even literate in their home languages. To prepare for the quiz, Bui asked the students to take turns testing each other on the material.

"Who is Pancho Villa?" asks Asmahan, 14, a rosy-cheeked young woman from Yemen cloaked in a hijab.

"Ahhhhhmmmm," mutters Huo Jie, 18, her classmate who arrived a few months before from rural southern China.

"When was the Mexican Revolution?" she presses.

Huo Jie scratches his head, and smiles sheepishly. He nods gratefully when she offers him the answers. She slowly repeats the phrases and waits patiently as he sounds out the difficult words.

The school's mission is to teach students targeted English in all of their courses, provide them with an intimate learning environment and caring teachers, and in four years time, send them off to college.

"The key to success for newcomers, is English. If they don't have that, they can't communicate, they can't apply for a job, and they are completely handicapped," says Rahim Aurang, executive director of Bay Area Immigrant and Refugee Services. He sees this school as a symbol of hope, in a climate that is increasingly hostile to immigrants and refugees "But if they are given the opportunity to learn, this younger generation can and will learn. In Afghanistan, we have a saying: 'If you open a school, you are closing a jail.' We need to have more schools for these newcomers, more opportunities."

The school is also committed to helping students take ownership of the new culture they find themselves in. There is a bicycle club, where students borrow bikes to explore Oakland and other Bay Area neighborhoods, and an after-school hip hop dance class led by a local performer.

Half the students at Oakland Internationals High School are from Latin America, 30 percent are from Asia, and the rest are from Africa, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East. Twenty percent are refugees, and many have had interrupted formal education -- meaning they've been out of school for a year or more. Many are also undocumented.

At first glance, history class seems loud and chaotic. But Bui stands calmly in the middle of it all -- testing individual students with an encouraging smile while calling out commands to various pairs of students throughout the classroom.

Thi Bui was herself a refugee from Vietnam. She was a baby when she fled the country by boat in 1978 with her family. Once here, her mother - a former teacher -- worked several minimum wage jobs to support the family. Bui talks about the mediocre public schools she attended and the history classes she despised.

"I still have a lot of resentment about the quality of my education," she says laughing. "It's what inspired me to go into teaching."

She started the semester by asking her students to do power point presentations about their home countries. For some students, this was their first time using a computer, and Bui and other faculty stayed after school to teach them how to surf the net, find and crop images, and write simple text.

"A typical immigrant who comes to Oakland or any district tends to be programmed into one English Language Development class," explains Oakland International High School Principal, Carmelita Reyes. "They might have the class for one hour a day. If you immigrate when you are 14 years old and you are only given an hour a day [of focused English language development] there is no way you can pass a high school exit exam at the end of high school."

When the school opened in September 2007, it was with a ninth grade class of 100 students. In four years time, they hope to have all the grades and 400 students.

The Internationals High School model originated in New York City, where nine schools have opened within the last 22 years. The Oakland school is the first Internationals High School branch outside of New York. In New York, they have graduated 65 percent of their students in four years, compared to 33 percent for the English Language learners in regular schools. And over 90 percent of their graduates have gone on to higher education. So the model has been shown to effectively support recent immigrants there. But Oakland presents a new set of challenges.

California is 46th in the country in per pupil spending. New York actually spends 75 percent more per student. And research released last week by the California Drop Out Research Project estimates that only two thirds of high school students graduate, and among students learning English, it's one in two. Students learning English make up 30 percent of all drop outs in California, although they only make up 15 percent of the high school student population.

In Oakland, the ninth graders don't have older classmen to look up to, who they would see preparing for college, and over 50 percent of them come from rural communities in Mexico and other countries where college has never been even a remote possibility.

Thi worries about her ability, and the school's ability -- to get students to imagine college as an option. But in December, she and other teachers at the school were given the opportunity to go to New York and visit and tour the Internationals High Schools there, and she returned with a renewed optimism.

"I feel re-invigorated my goal is to get them to write essays this year, and I feel like it's possible," she says.

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