Shakiba Zare, 16, moved to Arbutus with her family three years ago when they fled religious persecution in their home country of Iran.
"We are not free because we are not Muslim. So that is why we came here," Shakiba said.
It took her family 15 months to go through a lengthy interview process with the United Nations in Turkey before starting a new life in the U.S.
Now, she is one of 168 students enrolled in the English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) program at Lansdowne High School.
Over the past year, the school has seen "exponential growth" in ESOL enrollment, said Becky Koslowski, ESOL department chair at the school.
The 168 students this year is an increase from between 100 and 120 students last year, and more than 13 percent of the school's population is enrolled in the ESOL program, Koslowski said.
Lansdowne High has one of the highest number of ESOL students among county high schools. Its diverse enrollment includes students representing 23 countries in the program. Those represented include: Nepal, Pakistan, China, India, Bangladesh, Yemen and Senegal.
The majority of students come from Myanmar and Spanish speaking countries such as El Salvador.
Roughly 900 refugees who fled Myanmar to escape religious persecution have resettled in Catonsville with help from nonprofit organization International Rescue Committee, said Kevin Meadowcroft, community integration and external relations manager for the organization.
Of the 100 students zoned for Catonsville High School who are bussed to Lansdowne High, the majority are from Myanmar, Koslowski said.
The school draws ESOL students from Catonsville High because Lansdowne is one of five high school ESOL centers in the county.
Students are enrolled in both ESOL and mainstream classes and once they complete the three-year ESOL program, they can return to their home district's school.
However, the real growth is in the number of Spanish speaking students, said Koslowski, in her first year at Lansdowne after transferring from Kenwood High School.
"It's definitely changing the face of the community in Lansdowne [High]," she said.
Jazmen Arzuello, 16, a Lansdowne resident who moved to the U.S. from Mexico three years ago to escape a troubled community, is one of those students.
"I came to learn English and for an education," Jazmen said, who is in her third year of the ESOL program.
Koslowski said students enter the program with varying levels of English skills, which is why students need one-on-one attention.
Once enrolled, they take a four-part, three-hour test to classify their English ability. Based on their English speaking ability, they are entered into classes in three levels.
First-year classes include ESOL grammar, American culture and English. Students must complete ESOL classes in addition to the regular curriculum, which means it often takes them longer to graduate, Koslowski said.
"I find that most of our students coming from the Middle East speak the best English because they were made to take it in school, " Koslowski said, adding that some students arrive having already taken academic classes in English as well.
Sometimes, students enrolled from Spanish speaking countries and from Myanmar have basic English skills from an English elective they took while in their home country, Koslowski said.
Still, they are not ready to sit in a regular academic class and master the material because of the language barrier, she said.
The school does its best to keep class sizes small to give individual attention to students, Koslowski said.
Students are taught using an English immersion model, which means teachers only speak English to students in the classroom.
In addition to academics, the ESOL program also helps students participating in school activities and provides access to resources offered by the Baltimore County public school system.
There are currently 4,600 ESOL students enrolled in the Baltimore County public school system, a number projected to climb to 4,900 by October, 2015, said Brian Schiffer, director of social sciences, fine arts and world languages at Baltimore County Public Schools.
Students in ESOL classes at Lansdowne High are less likely to earn a high school diploma than their peers. ESOL students have a 63 percent graduation rate compared with the 83.7 percent graduation of other students at the school, according to Kenneth Miller, the Lansdowne principal.
"For some of these kids, they're coming from a major stressful event — moving, leaving your family, your friends, your culture," Koslowski said.
Isaac Zam, 17, who came to the U.S. from Myanmar in 2012, said the adjustment has been a challenge, but it will help him achieve his goal of attending college.
"It's difficult but I have to improve my English," Zam said.
Meeting the needs of a growing population is difficult for teachers, as class sizes continue to grow. The school has 92 classroom teachers, according to its website, and currently has three full-time ESOL teachers.
A former World Languages teacher who is fluent in Spanish and French, Koslowski often fills multiple roles as teacher, serving as a resource for students' parents and helping students with personal and emotional problems.
Having additional staff could help, Koslowski said.
"We need bilingual teachers, more than that bilingual support staff — I'd love to see a bilingual counselor," Koslowski said.
The school expects to get one additional teacher to meet the needs of its growing immigrant population next year, Miller said.
"Staffing is not a bottomless pit that we can have more and more teachers," Miller said.
School Superintendent Dallas Dance requested funding in his Fiscal Year 2016 budget for 31 ESOL teacher positions to meet the needs of a population that has grown by more than 200 percent over the past 10 years in the county.
"We have not kept pace with the staffing to support the needs of this population," Dance said during a budget briefing on Jan. 7. "We don't even have a separate office in our school system to support it."
But he cut six of those positions after meeting with County Executive Kevin Kamenetz who asked him to reduce his budget request, The Baltimore Sun reported.
Koslowski said finding teachers who can teach ESOL is difficult. The state has a shortage of ESOL teachers, according to a 2014-2016 Maryland Teacher Staffing Report.
"Even if the county said, 'Have as many positions as you want.', colleges aren't turning out ESOL teachers left and right," Koslowski said.