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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Do refugees learn more in ‘international’ schools?

Students at GEO International High School in Kentucky, all recent immigrants or refugees, present history projects to the class. Photo: Meredith Kolodner

“Segregating” refugees may help them integrate, suggests the Hechinger Report’s Meredith Kolodner. Bowling Green, Kentucky has opened a special “international” high school for newly arrived refugees and immigrants next to a comprehensive high school.

Faris Nakhal, 18, who survived a kidnapping in Syria, chose to attend GEO International High with “Somali, Iraqi, Burmese, Bhutanese, Ethiopian and Latin American teenagers,” writes Kolodner. Many of his classmates also had fled violence, often leaving family members behind. They all were struggling to learn English.

GEO International High School, with about 185 students, is connected to the Internationals Network for Public Schools in New York City; its schools have been more successful than traditional schools at educating new, and often traumatized, immigrants, and at boosting their emotional and social well-being, as well.

Bowling Green, small, affordable and offering jobs at the chicken-processing plant, has drawn nearly 3,000 refugees and thousands more immigrant workers in the last five years, writes Koldner.  That’s a lot for a town with only 60,000 people.

Many of the student arrivals, especially the older ones, struggled in the local high schools. Most came with no English, others were illiterate in their own language and had experienced brutality and deprivation unimaginable to their American peers.

Zaid Ali, 18, who saw a suicide bomber blow himself up on an Iraqi street, now works at a White Castle after school, is taking a dual-credit course and is headed for the University of Kentucky in Lexington. “Here everyone is the same as you, so we help each other,” he said. “They know what you’re going through.”

His two closest friends are from Pakistan and Somalia, so English is their only common language.

Students needed to learn English quickly, while they learned other subjects, said Skip Cleavinger, director of Warren County’s English language learner programs.

Designing a school for the needs of very needy students doesn’t strike me as “segregation.” It’s smart.

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