Unique High School for Immigrants Offers Real Chance to Join
New America Media
Feb. 26, 2008
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
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
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
"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
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
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.
Carolyn Goossen is the education editor for New America Media.