New International Academy in D.C. aims to help immigrant students graduateSeptember 25, 2014
From the beginning of last school year to the end, Cardozo Education Campus in Columbia Heights admitted nearly 90 students who were not only new to the school, but also new to the country.
Berokh Abebe, 17, was one of them. When she came from Ethiopia last spring, the first months were a blur. “I was confused. Everything was new,” she said.
To better serve its immigrant students, Cardozo created its International Academy. Starting this year, more than 160 students are taking part in a specialized program designed to streamline and improve the high school experience for a population that has one of the highest risks of dropping out.
The academy, which D.C. Council members and other officials have been invited to tour Wednesday, is another investment in a school that has been overhauled in recent years with new teachers and programs aimed at boosting low academic performance, as well as a $130 million renovation.
The formerly all-black school, which serves students in sixth through 12th grades, is also undergoing a demographic shift. Its share of non-black students has increased rapidly in the past few years, to more than 40 percent of the enrollment.
The fastest-growing group is recent immigrants. From August 2013 to June 2014, the number of students with limited English skills grew from 177 to 265.Such students have some of the toughest challenges in high school, when they have little time to learn the language, adjust to American routines and make up any gaps in schooling. Many already have adult-size responsibilities and problems outside of school. Often, schools require such students to build up their English skills before they can enroll in credit-bearing classes — a process that can take years, making graduation seem elusive. The International Academy enrolls students in grade-level courses right away and gives them language support as they go.
The academy is based on a model that is growing nationwide and has been successful at improving graduation rates for immigrant students. The first international school opened in New York City in 1985. Now, there’s a network of 19 schools in four states. T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria opened an international academy in 2012, and Prince George’s County school officials recently announced plans to open two schools in 2015 that will focus on recent immigrants and children of immigrants.
Cardozo’s academy opened with ninth- and tenth-graders. It plans to eventually serve as many as 400 students in grades 9 through 12. The academy does not request information about immigration status. D.C. law prohibits schools from denying admission to students based on citizenship.
In an English classroom on a recent morning, students were reading a story about a Mexican immigrant who becomes a migrant farmworker.
The text, similar to one used in other ninth-grade classes, was broken into passages in an illustrated textbook, with vocabulary words highlighted on each page.
“Who’s our main character?” the teacher asked. “What’s a vineyard? What are grapes?” she said, checking to see if the teens could follow the story.
In another class, the students were learning language skills they needed to support lessons in their history class. In other words: the past tense. They were also learning about exploring history from different perspectives, working on a project to interview family members to get different versions of their birth story.
At Cardozo, nearly all of the academy’s teachers are certified in their content area as well as in teaching English as a Second Language. The academy also has two bilingual counselors.
Students with different language ability levels are mixed together so they can help one another. And while some English-language programs enforce English-only conversations, the students at the academy are encouraged to use their home language to discuss what they are learning.
“Our students are older. Some of them learned about chemistry or Shakespeare in their home languages. . . . It helps if they can draw on that background,” said associate principal Megan Sands, who oversees the academy.
Kevin Franco, 18, was close to graduating from high school in El Salvador when he came to the United States last November. He enrolled at Cardozo and started over as a ninth-grader. This year, he is moving faster through his course work. He said he’s learning more and is proud of how far he’s come with his English skills.
“I just have nine months here,” he said. “I think it’s not bad.”