BOWLING GREEN, Ky. — Faris Nakhal was walking home after work late at night in Damascus when two men grabbed him and hit him over the head. They then held the teenager captive for 24 days until his father, a driver for the United States ambassador to Syria, got enough money together to pay the ransom.
His family had been reluctant to leave Syria, but after that, fearing something worse might happen, they applied for asylum in the United States. And because education was second only to safety for Faris’ parents, when they finally reached Kentucky in February, they immediately enrolled Faris and his younger sister, Rana, in school.
To their surprise, Faris’ school in their adopted hometown of Bowling Green, Kentucky, was filled entirely with students who had similar stories of violence, displacement and survival. There were Somali, Iraqi, Burmese, Bhutanese, Ethiopian and Latin American teenagers — all learning English, math, history and science in an eleven-room, domed building.
Last August, despite some opposition, Bowling Green opened a new high school dedicated solely to immigrants and refugees, adjacent to Warren Central High School in the poorer section of town. 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.
But was GEO International the right response? The question remains whether separating the students in high school, especially in a place that doesn’t have the built-in diversity of New York City, will result in the kinds of academic and social gains that lead to greater integration and eventually greater success as adults in the United States.
Bowling Green (population about 60,000) has taken in close to 3,000 refugees in the past five years. Along with them, thousands of undocumented and legal immigrants have also settled in this small, affordable town, which is the seat of a rural county. The result has been a smattering of new ethnic food joints, a steady supply of labor for the local chicken-processing plant and lots of debate about immigration.
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. Only 71 percent of English language learners at Central High graduated last year, compared with 93 percent of other students. Central has about 1,030 students.
The creation of GEO “wasn’t really about segregation, it was about the instructional support,” said Skip Cleavinger, director of Warren County’s English language learner programs.
“I was losing sleep over these kids. They were 19 years old and they needed an accelerated way to learn English. I couldn’t get people to break out of the idea that they needed to learn English before academic instruction could begin.”
The Internationals’ approach is multipronged: The schools teach English at the same time as teaching subjects like math and history, and make the lessons project-based so that new arrivals can use multiple tools to build their vocabulary and creative thinking. The schools also emphasize student collaboration and working in mixed groups so they can develop their English skills and help one another as they move through the work, and they can build relationships that provide social support.
And part of the approach is that all International schools, including Bowling Green’s GEO, are opt-in — chosen by students and their families.
Faris, 18, says he’s glad that he enrolled at GEO. When his plane landed in Nashville International Airport in February and he walked into the terminal, he and his family were greeted by Faris’ aunt and television screens blaring a speech by President Donald Trump. The president was announcing the first of his immigration bans, which halted refugees from Syria and six other majority-Muslim countries. Faris’ mother began to weep as she thought of her daughters who had been left behind. One was rejected for asylum because she had turned 21 during the two-year vetting process and had to start her application over again as an adult.
Many of the GEO students have been separated from family members who remain in dangerous situations or in refugee camps. School staff members are aware of the trauma borne by their students, and struggle to find ways to help them process what they have witnessed. They say that students’ sense of fear and uncertainty has risen since Trump was elected.
“I want them to understand that we care very much about them,” said GEO’s principal, Adam Hatcher. “It’s important that they know it’s safe here — emotionally and physically.”
Staff members and a committed guidance counselor make themselves available for conversations and support. Still, none of the school’s staff are bilingual or immigrants, and only two taught English as a Second Language previously, although almost all had English learners in their classrooms.
“It’s especially important here that they have each other,” said Cleavinger.
Faris says he and Rana, 15, don’t speak about their fears at home because their parents are so distraught, and they don’t want to add to their stress. His mother was hospitalized during his kidnapping because her blood pressure rose to dangerous levels.
“She still can’t talk about the kidnapping,” said Faris, this time through a translator, Zaid Ali, who is also a student at GEO.
“We talk to our sisters back home when we can, and to him,” Faris said, laughing and pointing to Zaid.
Zaid smiled. “Yes, they talk to me.”
Zaid was 15 years old when his family fled the violence that was ripping apart his home country of Iraq. They lived in a town about 35 miles from Baghdad. There were bombings that people “just had to get used to” as the conflict between the government and ISIS spread. He remembers the shock of watching a suicide bomber blow himself up along a crowded street.
Like most of the GEO students, Zaid is very aware of the anti-immigrant sentiment that exists both within and outside of Bowling Green. He felt some relief when Trump’s latest travel ban excluded Iraq, since his mother is still there, hoping to join him soon.
“The people here don’t understand that we are fighting against terrorism, too,” said Zaid, now 18. “I think people get scared and then they stereotype.”
Zaid spent two years at Central High learning alongside native-born students, and was apprehensive about transferring to GEO. “I had a misperception that only people who speak very little English would be here, and it wouldn’t be challenging,” Zaid said. “But it’s not like that.”
He’s a senior and is taking a dual-credit course (his second) at nearby Western Kentucky University. He was recently accepted to the University of Kentucky in Lexington.
“At Central, I was the only one confused, and at some point I just stopped asking what everything meant,” he said. “Here everyone is the same as you, so we help each other. They know what you’re going through.”
Zaid said some students at Central were friendly, but it was hard to develop friendships because of the language barrier. He tried playing on the school soccer team but often couldn’t understand the coach’s instructions.
Central is by far the most racially and ethnically diverse among the district’s four main high schools. Last year, before GEO opened, about 22 percent of its students were not fluent in English. This year, after students elected to transfer, that number dropped to 8 percent, and it’s less than 2 percent at two of the other high schools.
Zaid said he tries to speak English as much as he can — first at his job at the Kroger grocery store and now at a White Castle fast-food restaurant. And his two closest friends are from Pakistan and Somalia, so English is their only common language.
“It’s true you could speak less English here, if you find friends who speak your language,” Zaid acknowledged, “but if you want to learn, it’s easier here, because you’re not so scared to speak up because you know people are at your same level and won’t judge you.”
Hibaq Hassan was also suspicious when she heard the new school was opening.
“I didn’t want to go,” said Hibaq, 17, who came to the United States from a refugee camp in Uganda four years ago. “We thought they were trying to get rid of us, just kick us out.”
But Hibaq is now glad she transferred from Central, which is connected to GEO by a walkway. The two schools share the gym, cafeteria and library.
“It’s so much better here,” said Hibaq, whose family is originally from Somalia and fled the civil war. “Here the teachers slow down. Here we have respect. It is easier to learn.”
Will Spalding is new to teaching English language learners this year, but says training sessions helped him to revamp his lesson plans to make them more accessible. His lesson on the Civil Rights movement during his American History class on a March afternoon relied on photographs with short text portions to help the discussion.
At small tables formed by pushing four desks together, students argued about whether it was more effective to protest peacefully or fight back. One student explained the term “civil disobedience” in Swahili to another sitting at a nearby table.
For their research project, each student was asked to choose a civil rights leader to study and then present to the class. Spalding used Jackie Robinson to demonstrate what kinds of information students should include.
“Who knows who Jackie Robinson was?” he asked.
No hands went up. “OK, he was the first black athlete to play in the all-white baseball league. What’s an athlete?”
Several hands went up and two students got a chance to explain.
“Right, and how about baseball. Who knows baseball?” he asked, pausing when he saw only a few hands raised. “It’s similar to cricket. Who knows cricket?”
More hands, and a student who had spent time in a Kenyan refugee camp smiled as he briefly explained the basics of cricket.
Funding limits what GEO can do by way of emotional support for students still suffering from the trauma and displacement of war. There are only two mental health counselors for GEO and the other four high schools in Bowling Green (typically, each International school has at least two counselors with training in treating trauma). The school receives the same per-pupil funding as the rest of the schools in the state.
Hatcher and many of the teachers stay late as often as they can, and have worked hard to build a welcoming school climate. They organized a family supper night at the school, which was widely attended. Their “Heritage Night” drew 100 students and family members; one by one, two dozen students stood up to tell one of their memories of home. The texts and accompanying pictures are posted at eye level all around the school building and tell a range of stories, from a grandmother’s weaving prowess to watching neighbors get shot.
The school also organized a three-part speaking series in which immigrant adults in the community came in to tell the students how they were able to be successful in their new lives. And there is the Student Voice group, comprised of 24 student leaders who meet twice a month with the staff to address any issues or concerns they or other students are having at the school.
The nearby International Center of Kentucky also helps out, as does a network of faith groups. Churches have welcomed the many Christian refugees with open arms, and there are three mosques that provide support, anchored by Bosnians who fled the ethnic cleansings in Yugoslavia in the 1990s and settled in Bowling Green.
“Bowling Green is one of the most welcoming midsized towns I’ve ever seen,” said Albert Mbanfu, director of the center. “You have some stupid people who say horrible things, but the overwhelming majority are very welcoming.”
Still, “There is no structure to deal with the emotional damage of what has happened to these people and the mental health issues,” said Mbanfu, who arrived in the U.S. as a refugee from Cameroon in 2003. “Some students have never really been in a school. Some of the [refugee] camps have lots of food and health care and schools, and some don’t.”
Mbanfu and all of the adults involved in opening GEO say they know that separating the students carries some risks, and the history of segregation in Kentucky looms large in their minds.
Several said the fact that GEO is right next to Central, with some shared facilities, and that families are allowed to choose whether to send their children to GEO or Central, allayed their fears to some extent. But because GEO is considered an “alternative high school,” its newly minted soccer team can’t play in the local league and students can’t participate in countywide academic competitions.
“What really matters is what you can accomplish, and do you have evidence that what you’re doing is keeping them in school?” said Mike Stevenson, Central’s principal. “Kids were not meeting their potential. So do we keep doing the same-old same-old, which we know isn’t working, or do we try to do something different?”
In Maryland, when two International schools were proposed for suburban areas, the NAACP raised concerns about whether the model was a form of segregation. Local school board members and civil rights leaders then visited some New York City International schools, which convinced them the experiment was worth trying.
“It’s a legitimate question,” said Joe Luft, executive director of the Internationals Network and former principal of Flushing International High School in Queens. “But when you look at the data, you see that English language learners are the lowest-performing sub group in high schools, and that tells us we need to do something different.”
In New York, 74 percent of students at International schools graduated from high school in 2016, according to Luft, compared with 31 percent of English learners citywide.
Luft says that the goal isn’t segregation but creating a school where the needs of students new to the country are central, instead of being peripheral as they are in most schools. He said he would oppose any attempt to mandate that students must attend the schools, instead of offering them as an option.
“People should be concerned and remain vigilant about it,” said Luft. “The ideal state, down the road, would be that we got put out of business by how well other schools were doing.”
Most newcomers in Bowling Green are not familiar with the debates around teaching and learning in the U.S., but many say that their first priority, after finding safe and affordable housing, is making sure their children learn English.
Nafisa Mohamed arrived in Bowling Green last October, and her daughter, Ayan, is now at GEO. Originally from Somalia, they waited in a refugee camp in Ethiopia for seven years before they received permission to enter the U.S.
“The most important thing is that she learn English,” Mohamed said through a translator. “In the U.S., if you don’t know English, it’s like you are deaf.”