High school for refugees and immigrants ends first year

Aug 11, 2021 | News

By Tyger Williams

Outside the corner of Warren Central High School is the round annex building; inside are the many international and refugee students of Geo International High School.

There are 200 students from countries such as Iraq, Burma, Ethiopia, El Salvador, and Tanzania within the school. Inside the small circular building, over 24 different countries are represented and more than 28 languages are spoken.

Students like Fredrick Ndayirukiye, 19, came into America with his family around 2009 from Tanzania. Ndayirukiye spent two years in a refugee camp before coming to Bowling Green. At GIHS students are able to take dual credit class and focus on practicing for the ACT. Ndayirukiye took COMM 145 to help with his English and communications skills.

“In this school I am able to talk. If I was in the other school, I wouldn’t be talking as much as I would. I am more confident in talking here,” Ndayirukiye said. “Most people over here [GIHS] are like family and we know each other and are able to talk to each other.”

In room 302, Michele LeNoir, is one of the two English teachers at GIHS and has been teaching for about 27 years in several subjects. Ndayirukiye says she is like a mother to them and she helps everyone with almost everything.

“These kids are the most appreciative kids I have ever taught in my life,” LeNoir said. “Kids who wouldn’t even talk; you can’t get them to stop.”

GIHS is wrapping up their first year as an international school. The new school is focused on recent immigrants and refugees in need of a traditional high school education and English communicating skills.

From 2011-2015, the U.S. census estimated 13.9 percent of Bowling Green’s residents were foreign born.

Skip Cleavinger, the director of English learner programs for Warren County Public Schools, brought up the idea about creating an international school to Rob Clayton, the superintendent of Warren County, after an influx of refugees.

“In early 2000 is when the Burmese started coming; that was our first brush with students who are arriving at 16 to 17 years old who have been in refugee camps that didn’t go to a traditional high school,” Cleavinger said. “I couldn’t sleep without thinking about those kids not making graduation, benchmarks and much less earn the credits to graduate.”

When becoming the director of English learner programs in 2011, Cleavinger heard about the idea from his mentor from Stanford University about the International Network for Public Schools in New York. According to the website, International Network for Public Schools exist to provide quality education for recently arrived immigrants by growing and sustaining a strong national network of innovative International High Schools.

In the fall 2015, Cleavinger approached Mike Stevenson, the principal of Warren Central High School about creating the school. Stevenson arranged a steering committee that consisted of eight teachers and four administrators including himself and Cleavinger.

Cleavinger and Stevenson approached Adam Hatcher to be the principal of GIHS. Hatcher at the time had been working at Warren Central for six years as assistant principal and head of the English learners department of the school. Hatcher was one of the four administrators a part of the committee.

“Great thing about this school is that it’s a school of choice. We don’t make anyone attend that does not want to attend,” Hatcher said.

In November of 2015, Stevenson and the steering committee went up to New York and decided they were going to start the school. Stevenson was able to clear a space in the annex by moving the math department back inside the main building at Warren Central.

GIHS follows the model of the international networks in New York and are a listed school along with the 24 plus schools partnered with International Networks for Public Schools.

The school board approved the name and created the school in January of 2016. Formative meetings with New York helped setup the mission of the school and the statement. According to Cleavinger, the district needed 150 students by the end of March for the school to be open. Throughout that time, the committee met up with middle and high schools around Warren County about what GIHS will provide as a school.

They found the needed students and GIHS started their first year in the fall of 2016 in August.

The teachers at GIHS went through a rigorous selection process in front of students and other administrators. Hatcher wanted the best teachers as possible. With a small space and limited amount of rooms, GIHS has a staff of eight teachers two for each subject.

GIHS works under a project base learning mode of instruction according to Clayton. Students are to learn language and content at the same time. Students help each other translate and improve the content and English. They support each other through language, Cleavinger said.

“We want to create a culture where the kids feel extremely comfortable and that students sitting next to them has the same language acquisition challenges as they do,” Clayton said.

Many of the students who arrive at GIHS would struggle or had struggled in local high school classrooms with no English skills. Many students would shy away and hide in the back of the classroom without speaking a word, Cleavinger said.

Hamze Dahir, 18, a junior at GIHS is from Ethiopia and has been in America for almost five years. Dahir is one of few students who are fluent in speaking English. Abdirazak Nur, 20, who is a sophomore at GIHS is from Ethiopia as well, has only been in the U.S for a year and a half and knows very little English.

GIHS project-based learning allows Dahir and Nur to communicate to help each other. It enables them to work alongside one another and experience challenges together, Clayton said.

“We created the school for you, not to you,” Hatcher said. “We’re just excited that students want to stay.”

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