Folium: Teaching Unaccompanied Minors in NYC International Schools via NPR

Folium: Teaching Unaccompanied Minors in NYC International Schools via NPR

Folium: Teaching Unaccompanied Minors in NYC International Schools via NPR


Making headline news these days is the issue of refugees trying to settle in foreign countries.  A particular subset of these refugees – children – face unique challenges.  Among these many challenges is how these children are to get educated in a country where they do not speak the language.  An NPR story on Flushing International High School struck me as an amazing opportunity for students who have faced so many struggles in their young lives to get a real chance at success.  The FIHS serves students from 40 countries who speak 20 different languages.  Moreover, the school serves an underserved community of new immigrants who must have been in the United States for less than 4 years and who must also place in the bottom quartile of English language tests.

Flushing International HS.

Flushing International HS.

While not all cities may be in the position to create a school like FIHS, there are certainly lessons to be taken from the school that may be replicated to assist the refugees and other foreign students who come to the United States under less than perfect circumstances.  FIHS supports these students by allowing them to speak in the their own language while encouraging them to speak in English when possible.  These days, it is common for High Schools, mine among them, to immerse students in English on the theory that it is the quickest and simplest way to integrate these students into their new environments.  However, the students who thrive in this environment most likely have other support systems to take the pressure off.  There is no doubt that, at the beginning, these students are mentally and physically exhausted from the effort of going to school each day and learning in a language that is completely unfamiliar to them.  However, the refugees have families who may be struggling to get their feet on the ground and to pick up the pieces of their lives. This makes it even more important for the school to pick up the slack in supporting these children in order to increase their chances at success.

“Our students come from about 40 different countries, speak 20 different languages,” says Lara Evangelista, the school’s principal. – NPR 

In Clarkston, a small suburb in Atlanta, a school known as Fugee Academy was created especially for refugees. Luma Mufleh, the school’s founder and director, began the school in Clarkston because the government decided to begin settling refugees in there in the 1990s due of its affordability. Initially, refugee children had no choice but to attend the local public schools.  Mufleh started Fugee Academy out of concern for these refugee children who were not always ready to go into a particular grade based on their age.  Some of these children managed in the public schools, while others failed.  Fugee currently serves 93 students in grades 6-11 and hopes that next year it will enroll 120 students. According to Mufleh, “All of our kids, when they come into the school, are testing at the kindergarten or first-grade reading level. So that’s where we start.  Sixth grade is the ‘catch-up year,’ where all subjects, even math and science, are taught in a manner that drives reading and writing abilities. From seventh grade on, students learn at a pace that is equal to or faster than a typical public school. Classes are single-gender, which the faculty has found to be most effective.  It’s total immersion—no language but English is allowed—so learning happens very quickly here”. After seven years, Fugee has seen a great deal of success. Every student who has attended for three years is reading at or above grade level. Twenty-three of the 29 alumni attend college, while the other six are learning a trade through Job Corps (Swartz).

Students from Fugees Academy. Clarkson, Georgia.

Students from Fugee Academy. Clarkston, Georgia.


In Rochester Minnesota, the public school system has implemented a program specifically for helping refugees acclimate to and thrive in the school system as a whole.  One particular initiative is the inclusion of “Newcomer Centers” which are considered “schools within schools” because they allow for the “gradual transition of students to mainstream classes” (Promising Practices Program).  While in the newcomer centers, students learn intensive English and academic content along with lessons in the culture of American schools so that they are better able to “navigate their way through the school day” (Promising Practices Program).  Along with these centers, the school district provides a host of other supports including homework assistance from peers, math preparation courses, resources rooms, and parent support and participation programs.  Another key aspect to the program are the interpreters who speak 11 languages and who work in the Newcomer Centers.  If a student comes in speaking a language not spoken by one of these interpreters, the district has the capability to call in an interpreter who meets the students needs (Promising Practices Program).

What is so appealing about Rochester’s program is that, for a smaller school system, they make a point of integrating these students into the schools from the moment they arrive.  They are not left to sink or swim; rather they are supported from the first day and slowly transitioned into the mainstream as it becomes appropriate.

Morgan Solender
LEAF Contributor