The international high school provides
an alternative to newcomers, some of
whom have never been in a classroom.
Samuel Kanwea, 20, a Liberian refugee, walks
through the cafeteria line at Oakland International
High School. He started school when he was 17
and is now in his final year at the campus,
which serves roughly 220 students.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)
have been his freshman year in high school illiterate,
malnourished and exhausted from years of living
in a refugee camp in Ivory Coast.
His family had never been able to afford
the luxury of education, so he spent his
early teenage years collecting firewood and selling fish.
When the Liberian refugee started school in Oakland
at the age of 17, it was the first time
he had set foot in a classroom.
"Everyone was speaking English and
it confused me," said Kanwea, a lanky student
with a wide smile. "And I felt scared because I think
that I was the only one who didn't know how to read."
New immigrants and refugees have long posed
challenges for educators in the United States,
but Kanwea and others like him present
unique problems because they are often
strangers to traditional schools.
Academic issues are only one facet of their adjustment.
Not only must educators teach them English
and move them toward graduation,
but they also must counsel many students
grappling with the trauma of wars,
persecution or poverty.
"Their needs are emotional, political, economic
and social," said Ingrid Seyer-Ochi, assistant professor
of education at UC Berkeley.
"When we say that we are the land of opportunity and
we welcome all people . . . these kinds of students
and their families really put us to the test."
While most school districts in California place
newcomers directly into traditional campuses
or short-term English-language programs,
Oakland Unified School District offers them
an alternative campus -- and the option to stay
there until graduation.
The Oakland International High School opened
in 2007 to educate the city's recent refugees
and immigrants, and now enrolls about 220 students
from around the world, including from Yemen,
Mongolia, Russia, Ghana and Honduras.
This month, Kanwea, now 20, entered his final year
at the school with the routine of
a typical student: attending classes, playing basketball
and doing homework.
He has also gained weight, frequently
going back for second helpings of the free lunch.
Kanwea tells people his birthday is Jan. 1,
a date assigned by the United Nations refugee agency,
because he doesn't know the day he was born.
He grew up in Liberia without electricity
or running water and subsisted on the food
his family grew: tomatoes, rice, peppers
The family fled the war-torn country in 1992
and, after many years in Ivory Coast,
came to the United States as refugees.
The hardest part of adjusting to life here, he said,
has been learning to read and write.
Four years ago, he didn't know the alphabet.
Now, Kanwea said, he can read "little kid books"
and "some chapter books."
The accomplishments of this once illiterate student
can be measured through the sentences
he can now write. In history class, the teacher
instructed the students to write in their journals
about the places they've traveled
to in the United States.
Kanwea wrote, "There place that I been in
In Sacramento is very nice place.
It is quiet and nice."
On a recent day, art teacher Thi Bui instructed
her students to write a poem about themselves
and then read them aloud in groups.
Florinda Pablo Mendoza, 17, twirled her hair,
chewed gum and fiddled with her purple hoop earrings
as the teacher spoke.
Bui said, "If you don't understand,
ask your neighbor."
When Bui stopped talking, Florinda turned
to a classmate and whispered in Spanish,
"What did she say?"
In one sense, Florinda -- who attended only
two years of school in Guatemala
before arriving in the United States
in spring -- has an impressive gift.
She speaks both Spanish and Mam,
a Mayan dialect.
But, like many new immigrants,
she doesn't speak any English.
Everything else in school -- geography, algebra,
U.S. history -- will be out of reach until
she learns the language.
Classmates become both friends and translators.
Mendoza's friend, a 15-year-old Mexican immigrant,
helped her spell out the words for
the poem: Florinda. Happy, young, quiet, short. . . .
Who lives to play music, dance.
Who wants to see family, friends
and sisters. Resident of Guatemala.
Florinda looked at the letters
she had written. She couldn't read them.
"It's difficult for me," she said in Spanish.
"I don't understand."
Principal Carmelita Reyes said intensive
reading classes and after-school tutoring help,
but there is still a lot of ground to cover.
"If you are not literate in your native language,
it's really hard to flourish," she said.
Despite that, Reyes said, students like Florinda
make remarkable progress in a short time,
in part because they are immersed
in English at the school.
In Guatemala, Florinda lived on a ranch,
where she passed the time cooking, working
in the fields and weaving with her grandmother.
The nearest school was a two-hour walk away,
a distance too far to go alone.
She came to the United States legally
this year to join her parents.
Florinda said she feels sad when teachers and
classmates are speaking English and
she doesn't know what they are saying.
But her friends, who have been there themselves,
assure her she will start to understand more soon.
"I want to learn English," she said in Spanish.
"Because if I want to work,
I need to speak English."
Sticking it out
Hser Kaw, 15, was born in a refugee camp
in Thailand after his family fled Myanmar.
He spent just a few years attending school
in a bamboo building before coming
to the United States as a refugee in 2007.
Hser said he often skipped class at the camp.
When he first started at the Oakland school,
Hser said, he felt intimidated because
he couldn't read, write or speak English.
He spoke some Thai and
a little-known language called Karen.
"It was really, really hard," he said.
"All the students were laughing at me.
If a teacher told me to get something,
I just stayed looking."
In his first year, he received mostly Ds and Fs.
He said he considered quitting, but knew that
he would be able to find a better job
if he graduated.
So he sought out extra help and completed
his missing work, and he's now in 11th grade.
Reyes said Hser is often the first student
to arrive on campus in the morning.
For some immigrant and refugee teenagers,
the tasks are too much and they drop out.
But many students show an incredible drive
to succeed, said Laura Vaudreuil,
executive director of Refugee Transitions,
an organization that provides tutoring
and social services for the youths and their families.
"They need to work a lot harder to catch up,
" she said. "They absolutely do this. . . .
They know they are given an opportunity
that we take for granted."
Now, Hser can carry on conversations in English
and understand most of what happens in class.
After graduating, Hser said, he wants to go
to college and get a job helping other refugees.
Because the school has been open only two years,
it's too early to assess graduation and dropout rates.
Students must pass the state's high
school exit exam to graduate,
but can stay until they turn 21.
"Little by little, I know more and I know more,"
he said. "I understand and I make friends."
During English class on a recent day, Kanwea
and his classmates undertook a decidedly
American lesson: They took turns reading aloud
President Obama's recent speech on education.
When it was Kanwea's turn, he read slowly
and paused on a few unfamiliar words.
His friends, from India and Nepal,
helped him with the pronunciation.
Even when you're struggling, even when
you're discouraged, and you feel like
other people have given up on you,
don't ever give up on yourself. . . .
The story of America isn't about people
who quit when things got tough.
It's about people who kept going,
who tried harder, who loved their country
too much to do anything less than their best.
Even though learning to read has been
a tremendous struggle, Kanwea said
getting discouraged hasn't been an option.
His mother, Jessie Kanwea, said
she is relying on him and his sisters.
"If they don't go to school and get good jobs,"
she said, "how will they take care
of me in my old age?"
So each day, Kanwea keeps taking
the bus to school. And he keeps reading.
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