When The International High School at Prospect Heights in Brooklyn decided to hold its first-ever prom, most of its students -- immigrant teens from over 45 countries around the world -- had no idea what prom was.
“They were renting movies like Mean Girls to study up so they knew that there was a prom king and queen,” explains Brooke Hauser, who wrote an article for New York Times about the event. The Times piece led her to write a book chronicling one year in the lives of the students who attended this school, titled The New Kids: Big Dreams and Brave Journeys at a High School for American Teens, published this September.
To be eligible for admission at The International High School At Prospect Heights, students must have lived in the United States for fewer than four years and must fail their English-language assessment test. Of the 84 seniors in the class of 2009, more than half worked six or seven days a week. Despite these statastics, the school (as well as other international high schools of its kind) has high graduation rates: 73 percent stayed for the four years, which is approximately double the graduation rate of other New York City public schools.
But the struggle doesn't end on graduation day. Approximately 15 percent of International's seniors were undocumented, which left them stranded come graduation because they were not eligible for the same financial aid as the other kids in their class. And it's an issue that even American-born students are struggling with: Last month in Florida, five children of illegal immigrants sued the state for denying them in-state tuition rates at local colleges and universities. The students argued that the higher prices they were required to pay forced them to either take fewer classes or drop out of school entirely. In California, the DREAM Act -- which, as of January 2012, will allow undocumented students to apply for non-state-funded scholarships -- is facing opposition from state politicians and residents who are seeking its repeal.
The Huffington Post spoke with Hauser about the challenges immigrant teens face and why schools like International High School at Prospect Heights can provide a model for larger-scale education reform to serve young immigrants.
Bullying is the topic on everyone's mind right now -- how do immigrant teens fit into this conversation?
I think the reason you hear about other kids who are bullied and you don’t hear about these kids is that they don’t always have a voice in the media. A lot of it has to do with the parents. When I’ve read reports about bullying, a lot of the time it’s the parents speaking out on their children’s behalf and not the children themselves. In this case, many of the parents don’t speak English. So it’s kind of a hidden phenomenon.
Whose story stood out most in your mind of the teens you met?
One of the ones that really got to me is a girl named Jessica, who is from China and came to the US with the expectation that she would live with her father. When Jessica got to her father’s apartment, her stepmother kicked her out. At age 17, she temporarily went to live in an old age home. By the time I met Jessica, she was living in a small room that she rented from a Malaysian hairdresser in Chinatown. The room told her story in and of itself: She had rolls of toilet paper, bags of frito-lays chips, study guides, and Gossip Girl DVDs. She had a shelter but not a home. Her father felt so wracked with guilt that he used to come over to Jessica’s room several times a week and cook this extravagant feast so that she could have a home-cooked dinner. But the heart-breaking thing was that he never sat down to eat with her. He always went home to be with his new family.
There was also a boy from Tibet named Ngawang. He hid inside a small suitcase that was stowed in the backseat of a car traveling to the border of Nepal. He later wrote an essay called “24 Hours In A Suitcase” because that’s how long he was trapped in there.
How are the support systems different at The International School At Prospect Heights than ESL programs other public schools?
The thing that’s crucial to [The Prospect Heights] school is their program called "advisory." Basically, a teacher or another staff member watches over the welfare of a group of students for the entire year. It's not just the academic well-being of the students, but the emotional well-being of the students, as well, because learning the language is just a small fraction of what they have to learn when they get to the United States. Some of them are coming from rural villages and they have no idea how to begin to take the subway and navigate the complicated MTA system. Other kids got married during high school. There are all kinds of issues that happen outside of school that have a tremendous impact on how the students perform in school. The advisory program is important to help the students deal with the transition.
Did the students develop close connections with their advisors?
One of the students I feature in the book, Yasmeen, is a Muslim girl from Yemen. She became very close with her social studies teacher. Her parents both died around the beginning of her senior year. Her dream had been to go to college, but she was faced with this responsibility of caring for her younger siblings and was considering marriage so that she would have extra support. Her advisor was there to remind her that she shouldn’t give up that dream because she could find ways to make that work. She could take care of her younger siblings and go to college.
There are certain cultural expectations that are at times at odds with going to college. The whole family is often learning about the process and the advisor steps in to help connect the dots.
Did you find that these teens felt generally hopeful about their futures?
The students who had the hardest time were some of the undocumented students. They are trapped once they graduate unless they’ve earned a private scholarship. I would like to see the DREAM act passed on a national level because that would really open doors for them. Some of them are more patriotic than anyone I know, and it’s because they’re coming from some of the poorest, most devastated nations in the world. I wrote about a boy from Sierra Leone who grew up in a small mud brick hut with no electricity or running water, and who is one of more than 20 children that his father had with various wives. There are kids who have survived civil war and have literally crossed mountains and deserts to make it to this country. They really want to be here.
The school’s motto is “opening doors to the American Dream.” I’ve always felt that it’s immigrants who believe in the American Dream most of all. Every once in a while, you meet a kid who’s taken the expression so to heart that they think it literally means they can do whatever they dream of. There was one Chinese boy whose American Dream was to be the next dog wisperer. And there was another boy from Togo in West Africa whose dream was to become a zoologist and an actor. Not a zoologist or an actor, but both.