Faris Nakhal (center) and his sister Rana recently arrived in Kentucky from Syria. They are in school with Zaid Ali, right, a refugee from Iraq. (Meredith Kolodner)

By Meredith Kolodner

BOWLING GREEN, Ky. — Faris Nakhal was walking home after work late one night in Damascus, the Syrian capital, when two men grabbed him and hit him over the head. They 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 arrived in 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, 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 11-room, domed building.

Last August, Bowling Green opened a new public high school dedicated solely to recent immigrants and refugees, adjacent to Warren Central High School. GEO International High School, with about 185 students in grades 9 to 12, is connected to the Internationals Network for Public Schools in New York. The network’s schools often have had more success than traditional schools at educating new, and often traumatized, immigrants, and at boosting their emotional and social well-being, graduation rates and other data show.

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, 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 also have settled in this small, affordable city, 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. Seventy-one percent of English language learners at Central High graduated on time last year, compared with 93 percent of other students. Central High 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 network lists 27 affiliated schools and academies across the country, including locations in Virginia, the District of Columbia and Maryland. Its approach is multipronged: The schools teach English at the same time as 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 collaboration, so students can develop their English skills and help one another as they move through the work, and can build relationships that provide social support.

And part of the approach is that all International schools, including Bowling Green’s, are opt-in — chosen by students and their families.

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 Donald Trump’s victory in the contentious presidential election of 2016.

“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 are bilingual, and only two taught English as a Second Language previously.

Faris, now 18, 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.

“We talk to our sisters back home when we can, and to him,” Faris said, pointing to Zaid Ali, who is also a student at GEO and is translating for him.

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. He remembers the shock of watching a suicide bomber blow himself up along a crowded street.

This year President Trump has sought through two executive orders to suspend a refugee resettlement program and ban the entry of travelers from certain Muslim-majority countries. Those orders have been blocked through litigation in federal courts.

Like most 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 the latest travel ban from Trump 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. He’s now a senior and 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.”

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).

Hatcher and many of the teachers stay late as often as they can, and have worked hard to build a welcoming school climate.

Hatcher and others 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.

“It’s a legitimate question,” said Joe Luft, executive director of the Internationals Network. “But when you look at the data, English language learners are the lowest-performing subgroup in high schools, and that tells us we need to do something different.”

In New York, 74 percent of students at International schools graduated on time 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. He said he would oppose any attempt to require students to attend the schools, instead of offering them as an option.

“The ideal state, down the road, would be that we got put out of business by how well other schools were doing,” he said.

Most newcomers in Bowling Green are not familiar with the debates around teaching and learning in the United States, but many say that their first priority is making sure their children learn English.

Nafisa Mohamed arrived in Bowling Green in 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 United States.

“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.”

Nafisa Mohamed and her daughter, Ayan, waited in a refugee camp for seven years until they got permission to come to the United States.
(Meredith Kolodner)

The story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Kolodner is a staff reporter for The Hechinger Report.