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Recently, there was an NPR story about a school within a school for immigrant students. And it talks about the controversy it raises.

A lot of people don’t like it, splitting the newest learners off. Our department is split on the idea.

On the one hand, yes, they are separated/segregated from the rest of the population. We have separate content classes and separate advisories. They get little chance to intermingle.

But I have to tell you, when you don’t speak much English, hanging with other people who don’t speak much English is a really comfortable place to be.

IMG_1728.jpgA few months ago, a group of people from my district went to visit Rochester International High School–RIA, for short–which was an academy for newer arrivals in Rochester, NY. Right now, they are sharing the building with another school, but soon, they will take over.

To go to this school, you have to have low English proficiency and not have Spanish as your first language (Spanish speakers have bilingual classes in regular school). The goal is to send you back to your sending school. You can still, as a student registered at a regular high school, participate in all extracurricular activities.

The staff is incredibly dedicated. They all do home visits. So they know exactly where students are coming from and what their family situation is. The teachers go find kids when they disappear because life just got too hard. If you are dangerously close to aging out (students can finish the year they turn 20, but after that, they are no longer welcome in the New York State school system), they put you in a GED program that moves you toward job training. There’s a dedicated teacher for that.

Teachers follow the same routines in all of the classrooms, so there’s no need to get used to another teachers idiosyncrasies as you move from class to class. They teach culturally appropriate ways to respond to conflict. The teachers really know their students. The students really get to know their teachers.

The curriculum provides rigor, but it meets kids where they are. If you are a high schooler and you’ve never been to school before and don’t know numbers, they will teach you numbers, but they’ll call it Algebra, because all 9th-graders need to be taking Algebra. The teachers constantly check scores and move students according to ability.

In short, this school provides a big hug for students who otherwise would go unnoticed and fail. Or drop out. Disappear. Without anybody noticing.

And I have to ask, what’s so wrong with that?

Obviously, I fall in the other camp in our department. I believe in the big hug. I believe students get lost otherwise.

I know I did, and I was an A student in my Midwestern tiny town. And I understood a lot of things. For example, in my Kansas high school, I loved biology and had learned and been fascinated with the process of cell division.

But I couldn’t talk about it in German. So, when I was a foreign exchange student in Bonn, West Germany, on the day we were tested on cell division, I finished our 90-minute test early, after about 30 minutes (I had no more words to write, but I could draw the process and label the parts). I went to drink tea. And my German boyfriend showed up 45 minutes later, talking about how hard that test was. I didn’t remember it being hard. I remembered just being done before everybody else and wondering what they were writing.

I remember when we got the grades back, the teacher told me that the C- she gave me was a gift, because I just didn’t know the material.

But I did. I just didn’t have the academic vocabulary in that language.

That was when I started to skip school.

I was not prepared for this. I was not in Kansas anymore. I never had to study for any course in my rural school. Things came easy for me. I read voraciously, far above grade level, and I was a gifted writer. I graduated from my own high school never having taken a sick day or mental health day that was unsanctioned by my parents. When I went to Germany, however, where I was staying with a host family that I didn’t quite trust, I became the girl who never came to class.

I could ask where the bathroom was. And I could have childlike conversations about daily occurrences. And I knew my way around the money system. I knew how to take the bus. I was functional. I could read. Somewhat. But I was low on the German literacy scale. And sometimes I didn’t understand.

I remember thinking, why should I go to class? Nobody was helping me with the language. Nobody was helping me reach my full potential.

I was just not proficient. And a C- was a gift.

It sucked.

I was not the child who people gave “gift” grades to. I was an A student. A brown-noser. An overachiever. My teachers loved me. My parents didn’t go to parent-teacher conferences, because they were busy, and they knew they would hear that I was doing well. I won scholarships. I was expected to exceed and excel. I was a performer. I was in the band. I was in drama. I was in clubs. I went to church. I volunteered. I was a good girl.

And then … I wasn’t.

I am not going to say that I know what it’s like to be a refugee.

I was a privileged foreign exchange student. I did not come from money, but my parents had enough money to send me away, to follow my whims. And it was expected in my family, with my educated parents, that I would be going to college, as would my six siblings. To do otherwise was unthinkable.

I knew I was going back home after that year was over. I knew I would be given a car to drive off to the University of Kansas, where I would study for the next few years and follow whatever pursuits my heart desired.

I was not a refugee.

But I knew what it was like to be in a school where it seemed that nobody cared what I did because it didn’t really matter.

I didn’t really matter. I was inconsequential.

And then there are my students, who are refugees.

They left most of what they had behind, and they won’t likely go back. They may or may not have been good students. Their family expectations are not the same as mine. Their parents are just worried about staying alive and staying sane.

And sometimes, even that is a struggle.

So, what’s so wrong with a big hug?



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