Refugees learn more, adapt faster in ‘international’ schools

“Segregating” refugees may help them integrate, suggests the Hechinger Report’s Meredith Kolodner. Bowling Green, Kentucky has opened a special “international” high school for newly arrived refugees and immigrants next to a comprehensive high school.

Faris Nakhal, 18, who survived a kidnapping in Syria, chose to attend GEO International High with “Somali, Iraqi, Burmese, Bhutanese, Ethiopian and Latin American teenagers,” writes Kolodner. Many of his classmates also had fled violence, often leaving family members behind. They all were struggling to learn English.

GEO International High School, with about 185 students, is connected to the Internationals Network for Public Schools in New York City; its schools have been more successful than traditional schools at educating new, and often traumatized, immigrants, and at boosting their emotional and social well-being, as well.

Many of the student arrivals, especially the older ones, struggled in the local high schools. Most came with no English, others were illiterate in their own language and had experienced brutality and deprivation unimaginable to their American peers.

Zaid Ali, 18, who saw a suicide bomber blow himself up on an Iraqi street, now works at a White Castle after school, is taking a dual-credit course and is headed for the University of Kentucky in Lexington. “Here everyone is the same as you, so we help each other,” he said. “They know what you’re going through.”

His two closest friends are from Pakistan and Somalia, so English is their only common language.

Students needed to learn English quickly, while they learned other subjects, said Skip Cleavinger, director of Warren County’s English language learner programs.

Designing a school for the needs of very needy students doesn’t strike me as “segregation.”

It’s smart.

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Joanne Jacobs

Joanne Jacobs

Joanne was born in Chicago and named after her grandfather, Joe Jacobs, who’d been a police reporter for the Omaha Bee-News. At the age of eight, she and her best friend became the creators and co-editors-in-chief of "The Wednesday Report" for four years. After years as a San Jose Mercury News columnist, Joanne started an education blog in 2001 and wrote "Our School: The Inspiring Story of Two Teachers, One Big Idea and the Charter School That Beat the Odds." She freelances for online sites, newspapers, magazines, foundations and think tanks. In addition to blogging at, Joanne writes Community College Spotlight at
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