Immigrant schools aim to get students with little education through high school

High school teacher Alison Hanks-Sloan tried every way she could to stop 20 immigrant students from dropping out. She and a group of teachers gave them career counseling, visited their homes, and even brought in business leaders to explain how much more money they could make with a diploma.

But at the end of the school year, in 2002, Hanks-Sloan, a teacher in Prince George's County, was crushed: Three-quarters of the students still dropped out. She would later see them busing tables in restaurants.


"I just remember this sense of guilt," she said. "I thought about my Miguel, my Jose, my Abdi."

Those faces haunted her, symbolizing the problems teachers around the country confront in educating teenage immigrants, many of whom have little previous schooling. Too often the students aren't able to adjust to a rigid educational system that gives them just a few years to learn a new language and master four years of high school curriculum.


This fall, after years of research and the help of legislators and the advocacy group CASA de Maryland, Prince George's County launched a model they think will work: two international high schools for immigrants. Across the nation, more than 20 of these schools have been created to give immigrants a better chance of getting through high school — and ultimately, making it to college and landing good jobs.

"We had to do something different," said Hanks-Sloan.

She is now the principal of the new International School at Largo, where students get more time to learn English and can go at their own pace. The schools each started with 100 ninth-graders and plan to add a grade each year.

Other school systems around the state and in the Washington, D.C., area, where there are high numbers of immigrants, could adopt the model, which has shown success in getting more of these students to graduate from high school.

Educators are wrestling with the issue at a time of fierce public debate about immigration. More than 20 governors are trying to stop Syrian refugees from entering their states, and presidential candidates are arguing over the pathways to legal status for undocumented immigrants. Some critics have charged that at a time of tight budgets, school resources should be going to American students, not kids from other countries.

Baltimore — which resettles more refugees each year than any other place in the state — is grappling with these issues. As detailed in the recent Baltimore Sun series "Unsettled Journeys," which looked at teenage immigrants at Patterson High School, foreign-born students struggle to adapt to their new school and culture, even with a cadre of supportive teachers.

From Burmese families in Catonsville to people from Nepal in East Baltimore, Patterson and other high schools are seeing students arrive with no English skills and little schooling. They are often burdened with trauma from the violence they fled.

Most schools put newcomers into high school science, math, history and English classes with their American peers within months of their arrival in the United States. That could mean a 15-year-old who reads at a second-grade level is enrolled in a high school biology class. Some learn quickly and catch up, but others have difficulty and drop out.


Across the state, slightly more than half of the students who are learning English as a second language are graduating from high school in four years, compared to 87 percent for all students.

In the Prince George's County school system, 20,000 students are learning English as their second language. Hanks-Sloan's new school has students from Burma, Senegal, Liberia and Haiti, as well as from Central American countries. The schools also include students born in the United States whose first language is not English.

The first students say the schools feel different from the American middle schools they came from.

Carlos Diaz, 14, entered an American school that felt frightening to him last year. He could only speak Spanish and got terrible grades. Just months before, at age 13, he had made his way alone from Honduras to the Mexican border. He was detained by immigration officials and eventually sent to live with his mother in Prince George's County, whom he had not seen in years.

This year at the International School at Largo, he said, he has begun to understand the classwork with the help of teachers who stop and translate when he is confused.

"It is more better," he said, blushing with embarrassment as he spoke English and tried to describe his new school.


Another student, Liliana Bravo, 14, remembers her tough science class last year, where complex ideas became scrambled in her head as she struggled to understand both the English words and the concepts. In the new school, she is moving at a slower pace, she said, but now comprehends what she was supposed to be learning last year.

"I learned in another way, and it was easier to understand," Bravo said.

The Largo school is located in an existing public school with a declining enrollment that had extra space. It opened with the help of a $3 million grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, a nonprofit that focuses in part on education.

It is part of the Internationals Network for Public Schools, a loose network with schools in New York, California, Virginia and now Maryland that all operate according to similar principles. The philosophy assumes that students don't have to learn English first in order to learn the content in a high school class.

So students are given content at whatever grade level they are able to understand it. If they can't grasp the ideas in English, then they can learn some of the concepts in their native language. Teachers must meld learning the language with learning the class material.

They also put students of varying English fluency together. "If we create opportunities for them to work together, they can assist each other," said Claire Sylvan, executive director of the network. Teachers who have students in common also work in groups, meeting each week to go over the issues their students are having, from mental health to academic problems.


The approach has had positive results. In the 15 New York schools, students have a graduation rate of 64 percent, compared to 37 percent for English language learners in regular public schools.

The Largo school also is combining the international school model with a new approach to education that focuses on judging students not just on how well they have learned the content of a course, but also on their development of critical-thinking skills and their acquisition of English. In addition, they are judged in their report cards on social and emotional skills, including a student's work ethic, behavior and ability to work with others.

As long as a student is coming to school, doing the work and making progress, they will achieve. It requires, however, a whole new report card and a different approach by teachers and students.

"The goal is to be judged against yourself," Hanks-Sloan said.

Known as competency-based education, the model is being used in public schools around the country, not just immigrant schools.

At the Largo school, the students also are studying culture, learning about the ways their countries are different through art, literature, science and music. And every Tuesday for a month, teachers delve into a topic through an interdisciplinary approach. Last month, they studied sea turtles in science, English and art. They learned about the international laws that govern sea turtles and read poetry about sea turtles, among other activities.


Captivated by the turtles, Carlos Recinos, 15, who was born in El Salvador, said he learned about "what kind of turtles are endangered, and like what we can do to protect the turtle."

The project culminated in the creation of a large green papier-mache sea turtle, with flags of the different countries the turtles migrate to forming an edge around the shell. The sea turtle, the school's mascot, is now hanging on the wall. Recinos said the school's teachers spend more time listening to what their students are saying and giving them additional help when they haven't understood a concept.

Hanks-Sloan said she began thinking about an immigrant high school after hearing a lecture from Sylvan, the head of the network of international schools. She was surprised by their success getting students to graduate from high school and go to college.

But the concept and push to create immigrant schools didn't come to fruition until several years later, when Del. Joseline A. Pena-Melnyk and state Sen. James Rosapepe, Democrats representing Prince George's and Anne Arundel counties, talked to CASA de Maryland and school system leaders.

Some members of the community resisted. The local chapter of the NAACP opposed the new schools, saying that immigrant students should not be segregated and arguing that the new schools would be taking resources away from American students.

Their objections were overruled by county leaders.


Because of the startup money from Carnegie, and the space provided in high schools that were under-enrolled, the new schools are not costly, noted Rosapepe. "This is not a materially more expensive high school than a regular high school. They don't have a smaller teacher-student ratio. It isn't a material financial issue," Rosapepe said.

The Largo school, for instance, shares a cafeteria and other common areas with Largo High School. The schools do use more social workers and counselors, but they are shared between the two schools. In addition, college students intern in the schools, which has helped address needs.

Although it took a few years to start the schools, Rosapepe said the model could be replicated in other parts of the state, including Baltimore. Patterson High School, where one-third of the students are foreign-born, has been overwhelmed by the new immigrants arriving in the past several years. Teachers there have tried various strategies to improve graduation and retention rates of students, but too often they aren't successful.

When asked about the international school model, Baltimore schools chief Gregory Thornton didn't say whether the district would consider adopting it in the city. He said he liked the "integrated model of culture diversity" that brings people from different backgrounds into the same school.

Rosapepe said immigrant students can get lost in the shuffle of American schools. "They need to start focusing on these immigrant students where they are," he said.