In a crowded math class at Owings Mills High School, students from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico strained to comprehend what their teacher was saying. They could barely understand the English words she used, much less figure out the equations she was having them solve.
A boy at the front of the class helped by providing some translation, but some students were visibly perplexed. The chances of these newcomers becoming fluent enough in English to master their high school classes in coming years is small. Only about one in 10 immigrant seniors at Owings Mills graduated on time last year.
As the Baltimore region scrambles to educate the flow of refugees from war-torn countries and undocumented youths from Central America, schools such as Owing Mills are searching for the best ways to give them a better chance at a productive future.
"We need a different model to address student needs now," principal Abbey Campbell said.
Owings Mills' immigrant population is growing quickly, and the high school now has the highest percentage of immigrant students in the county. Forty percent of this year's ninth-graders are immigrants. The school began January with one ninth-grade math class for immigrants, but by June there were three classes, each of them overflowing.
Unlike the Asian or Russian immigrants who came to Baltimore County a decade ago, these students are more likely to be academically limited and carry trauma from their experiences fleeing war. They may enter high school at age 16 or 17 as ninth-graders.
As a result, the graduation rate for recent immigrants at Owings Mills has plummeted from 64 percent to 11 percent in just two years. County and state graduation rates for this group also have been falling, though not as sharply.
Baltimore County Schools Superintendent Dallas Dance is considering a range of new approaches, including creating an international high school within Owings Mills. And a state task force is grappling with how to improve the academic achievement of these students, who are performing worse than any other group in the state, including special education students or those from disadvantaged backgrounds.
"When you are trying to teach a kid biology, does English get in the way or do you try Spanish?" said Campbell.
For 19 years, Margarita Ugarte-Caffyn has been sort of a den mother for those who come from foreign countries to Owings Mills. As head of the English for Speakers of Other Languages program, she began seeing the influx two years ago.
"I realized that things were changing," she said. She started seeing more students whose educations had been interrupted by violence or unrest in their home countries.
"The focus needs to change if we want to have students graduate," she said. "We need to fill in the gaps in academic background and English proficiency."
Owings Mills is one of five magnet schools in Baltimore County for immigrant students. They are arranged strategically around the county's donut-shaped geography so students don't have to travel far. At Owings Mills, about 30 percent of the school is bilingual. Students come from 36 countries, including Jordan, Nigeria and Honduras, and speak 24 languages.
Kenia Gaitan, an 18-year-old student who arrived from El Salvador in 2013, said despite her initial nervousness about Owings Mills, she now feels comfortable in her classes, even though her teachers speak English so quickly it's sometimes hard to understand them.
"There are a lot of words I cannot say, but I try my best," she said.
She said she improved her English by watching a lot of movies and reading books in which she didn't know dozens of the words. Now in the 11th grade, she is hoping to graduate and then work for a few years to save money for college. She wants to be a dental hygienist.
On Ramiro Pimentel's first day at Owings Mills two years ago, he was sure he would be embarrassed by his inability to speak English. He had lived in Mexico with his grandparents for three years before he flew to Maryland to be with his mother, who had just married an American. He befriended other Spanish speakers and soon felt comfortable. With younger siblings born in the U.S. who only speak English, and with a heavy dose of American comic books and television, Pimentel is picking up English quickly.
"I might get a science career in the future," he said.
Many of the young newcomers have hit more bumps than Gaitan and Pimentel and are falling behind and dropping out at an alarming rate.
"In the last few years, the entire landscape for ESOL has shifted," said Brian Schiffer, the head of Baltimore County's ESOL programs. The high dropout rate is partly because "the standards for what we are expecting students to know and be able to do" have grown, making it more difficult for newcomers to meet the higher bar, Schiffer said
When Dance saw Owings Mills' graduation rate, he began looking more closely at what could be done to improve students' futures.
One option, he said, would be to create a school for the immigrant students that keeps them out of mainstream high school classes and provides more academic support, with a curriculum geared to immigrants learning English. He has sent his staff to look at such schools in New York and Houston.
Two international schools have recently opened in Prince George's County that mirror schools across the nation that have successfully gotten high percentages of immigrant students to graduate. Next fall, four counties in Maryland will begin a pilot program that allows students unable to learn English and collect enough credits to graduate by age 21 to take GED classes instead.
Campbell, who knew very little about immigrant students before taking over as principal, has begun studying what will work and hopes to implement some changes over the summer for next fall. She doesn't want to give up Owings Mills' sense of community if a new school-within-a-school is created.
"I want them to be fully included here before they go out into the real world," Campbell said.
Another option, Schiffer said, would be to extend the school day or the school year.
When Campbell saw one of her students leave school because he had to work to help support his family, she began conceiving of classes that could be held at night.
Educators are also considering allowing students to take some classes in their native language rather than forcing them to learn complex subjects, such as high school science, in a language they don't know.
Next year, Owings Mills students will get laptops. The infusion of new technology may help students by offering teachers the flexibility to give online material that will close their gaps in knowledge, Campbell said. While most newcomers who arrive in elementary and middle school have time to learn English and catch up academically to their peers, teenagers have difficulty learning the content in high school classes while also learning English.
In some states that have been grappling longer than Maryland with large numbers of immigrants, such students are given more time to graduate.
"We visited a school in Houston where they are allowed to be in school until they are 26," Schiffer said.