Trevor Hunnicutt, Chronicle Staff Writer
Sunday, August 3, 2008
The students at Oakland International High School form a real-life melting pot.
There's Esteban Rojas, 17, who arrived from Mexico three years ago and still speaks mostly Spanish.
French-speaking Valerie Ndong, 16, who goes by Grace, emigrated from her West African home in Gabon to be with her mother in Oakland.
And there's Qi Ruan, an 18-year-old native of China who arrived here less than a year ago, speaks Cantonese and struggles with English.
In the school's auditorium, student drawings of their homelands colored the walls recently. In one, a row of shanties sits along a snaking river.
"Hi. My name is Antonio," an accompanying placard read. "I am 17 years old. I am from Thailand and made a mural about it. I was born in a refugee camp because my people are Karen, and we don't belong to Thailand. My mom is from Burma but we aren't allowed to be there, so we have to be in camps in Thailand. My mural has pictures of the camp I lived in."
The school opened its doors a year ago at a former middle school on Webster Street in the Temescal neighborhood to serve a diverse group of high school students with some things in common: They are all relatively new to the country, they are trying to become fluent in English, and nearly all qualify for a free or reduced-price lunch, an indicator of low socioeconomic status.
In regular high schools, students who are new to English don't always get the attention and college-prep academics they need, said Alison McDonald, an Oakland district administrator who oversees high school principals.
"They're not sidelined there," she said. "It has to be rigorous because they are preparing these kids to pass the exit exam, to get a diploma and to go to college."
A radical approach
It is a different model - a somewhat radical approach - that keeps the immigrant students together for their entire time in high school. Unlike at newcomer high schools where students are there only briefly, the International High students already feel a sense of ownership in their school, McDonald said.
The school started with 100 students last year and expects to grow to 400 over the next few years. The school reaches out to churches, refugee groups and other organizations to recruit families, some of whose children do not go to school.
The school boasts a college-prep curriculum and English classes and strives to keep the students there until they graduate. It's a relatively untested approach and marks a departure from "newcomer" high schools, where recent immigrants typically study for several months or a year before transferring to a mainstream school.
Oakland International is the 10th school to open in the Internationals Network for Public Schools, which receives funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The other nine schools are in New York City, and there are plans to open one in San Francisco next year.
"They serve an incredible niche of young people who come from all over the world and are English-language learners," said Michelle Fine, a psychology and education professor at the City University of New York, who studied the schools in New York. "Somehow in these schools, they've figured out how to create a community that values difference but that also values trust and support."
Yet some education experts think Oakland International's melting pot is missing an ingredient seemingly required for assimilation in American society: a mix of American teenagers.
Separate - and unequal?
"Review of the history of racial segregation in this country confirms that separate schooling has meant unequal schooling," Rosa Castro Feinberg, an education professor at Florida International University, wrote in a 2000 study of newcomer schools. "Thus, we have many good reasons to be wary of the consequences of segregation on the basis of language, no matter how good the plan or how benign the intentions."
Comprehensive data on immigrant academic performance are difficult to obtain, but experts say that immigrant students have an advanced battery of needs - economic, cultural and educational.
Teachers at Oakland International specialize in one academic area but are all considered language instructors. They speak primarily in English to students and rely on students to translate if necessary.
Language-building activities are a part of every activity at the school. For a rock-climbing outing late in the school year, for example, students read about the basics and history of the sport and then filled out a response sheet that tested reading comprehension. Then they went rock climbing.
Oakland International's principal, Carmelita Reyes, said she would characterize the school's model not as experimental but as an option that can have great benefits for students with advanced needs.
"There is one to two hours of English language development at mainstream schools," said Reyes. "For some students that works, but for others it's frightening, confusing and frustrating."
Student Qi Ruan, however, questioned the isolation from native English speakers at the school. The 18-year-old lives in Oakland's Chinatown with her parents and has little opportunity to practice English.
"I want to study in a school that many people speak English well," Ruan said. "The United States citizens, they study in different school, right? So it's hard to speak more English in my life."