Conflict & Justice

Back to School at Oakland's International High

It's back-to-school season, always a bit tricky, especially at high school. Now add to that a new language and country and things just got more intimidating. That's what many new immigrants and refugees face as they start school in the U.S. But in California, one public high school tries to offer these students a softer landing.

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It's week one at Oakland International High School. First, there is orientation. One small class formed a circle and a student volunteered to say her classmates' names: Hamid, Santos, al-Abbas, Hoàng, Ricardo.

A diversity of names typical at urban schools, until you realize that every student here is from somewhere else: Guatemala and Burma, Nepal, El Salvador and Iraq, most rejoining relatives who emigrated to California years ago.

"Students come here from about 32 countries," said Carmelita Reyes, the principal, who who started Oakland International High School in 2007. "But each country has a different educational philosophy, has maybe no educational opportunities. So we have kids that come to us very beautifully educated, don't speak a lot of English. Or they may have not been in school for the last six years because there's no secondary school in their village in Guatemala."

Reyes started the school after visiting a place like it in New York, a public charter school catering only to new immigrants. There are now 300-plus students here, and the graduation rate is above the national average for immigrants.

"When you come into this country and you're 15 or 16 and you don't speak English, the chances of graduating are abysmally small," Reyes said.

Here, there's an effort to have students make up missing credits. And for students new to the U.S. and English, the first year here can start with the basics.

English teacher Lorraine Woodard ensures that students from different countries mix and make friends—in English, without fear of being
laughed at.

Arelia Martínez, 15, moved this summer from rural Guatemala, after getting the visa to join her mom here. In a recent class, she spent time practicing basic greetings in English with fellow students from Vietnam, El Salvador and China.

"I'm happy because I'm going to learn English," Martínez said. She added that she also wants to become a doctor or a singer.

And while the new students ease in, older students push hard to graduate, even if it takes extra classes, an extra year.

Tekleweini Habte, who goes by T.K., is 18 years old and from Eritrea. He rejoined his parents in California, who came here years ago because of war. Staying in Eritrea meant years of obligatory military service.

"But here you have full freedom," T.K. said. "You have choices what you want to do."

In Eritrea, emigration is illegal. T.K. crossed the border at night into Sudan. He'd stuffed his school transcripts in his bag.

"I had them, but when we were running," he said. "We had to escape from the border guards. We just run and throw all our stuff. If they catch you, they'll put you in jail."

Principal Reyes cobbled together a plan for T.K.

"He had no credits, no papers, whatsoever," Reyes said. "So how do you treat him? Is he a ninth grader? Not really. He clearly had education so we decided to put him in eleventh grade and see what happens and he did very well."

T.K. has pulled all-nighters. He's taken summer courses.

"Very hard work. I finished though," he said. "I can graduate this year."

Principal Reyes is proud of achievers. An article about Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor is taped to her office door. But she's also realistic
and knows life in the U.S. means daily hurdles, big and small.

"You know, we had a kid who brought a machete to school," Reyes recalled. "Well, in America that's an expellable offense. And, well, he had a melon for lunch and in his country, if you have a melon for lunch, you bring your machete, you cut it up and split it."

And there are far bigger challenges: culture shock triggering depression, the pull to work instead of study, the lure of Oakland's street gangs. Reyes keeps a stash of white shoelaces and T-shirts in her office if students are wearing gang red and blue clothing.

Overall, Reyes said that the best intervention is keeping kids in school,
around other immigrants like them. That, she said, is the surest path to a diploma and a brighter future in the United States.

  • Student1.jpg

    Arelia Martínez, 15, who moved from rural Guatemala this summer, is a freshman at Oakland International High School, a public school catering to newly arrived immigrants. (Photo: Monica Campbell)

  • Student2.jpg

    Tekleweini Habte, an 18-year-old from Eritrea, is a freshman at Oakland International High School, a public school catering to newly arrived immigrants. (Photo: Monica Campbell)

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