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Another immigration issue that came to the forefront this year - the more than 57,000 unaccompanied child migrants who crossed the border into the U.S. Public schools are scrambling to educate these kids. And getting them up to grade level can be challenging, particularly when they arrive as older teenagers. But there are schools with a solid track record of educating immigrant children. Reporter Alexandra Starr visited one of them in New York City to see what lessons they hold.
ALEXANDRA STARR, BYLINE: Flushing International High School is like a teenage version of the United Nations.
SU CHUNG HAO: Hi. I'm Su Chung Hao. I'm from China, and I'm 16 years old.
LESLIE HERNANDEZ: My name Leslie Hernandez. I'm from Guatemala. I am 19 years.
MD AL FASHAD: My name is MD Al Fashad. I'm from Bangladesh. I am, like, 13 years old.
STARR: And that's just a small cross-section.
LARA EVANGELISTA: We have basically a mix of about 40 different countries, 20 languages.
STARR: Lara Evangelista is the school's principal. Most educators would be freaked out at the prospect of educating a student body this diverse, particularly because when the kids first enroll, they've generally been in the U.S. for less than a year.
EVANGELISTA: OK, guys, it's time. Let's go. Come on.
STARR: As Evangelista ushers kids into their second-period classes, she tells me that up to 60 of the school's new enrollees are from Central America.
EVANGELISTA: I mean, we've always served unaccompanied minors. You know, this is not something new to us. Yes, there's been a huge influx. I would say that, you know, we have systems and structures in place to serve the needs of those students.
STARR: To show me that approach in action, we head to a Language Arts class.
EVANGELISTA: Let me pop in here.
STARR: In a corner of the classroom, Evangelista and I watch half a dozen teenagers working on a poster board. They're creating it for a presentation they'll do on culture and food.
EVANGELISTA: In this group, it looks like we have - there's a Portuguese speaker, Spanish speaker, Punjabi, another Spanish speaker and Mandarin speakers here.
STARR: The teachers do this on purpose. Grouping students together who don't speak the same language spurs them to communicate in English. But the students aren't put in a situation where they have to sink or swim. Flushing educates its ninth and tenth-graders together. And within the grooves, teachers often pair off freshman with sophomores who speak the same language.
David Martinez is a recently arrived ninth-grader from El Salvador. As he marks up the poster with a black sharpie, he tells me there are just a few phrases he's comfortable saying in English.
DAVID MARTINEZ: My name is David (laughter).
STARR: He's been paired off with a sophomore from Ecuador, who's been in the United States for two years. Martinez says having a buddy who can translate for him is huge.
DAVID: (Speaking Spanish).
STARR: It helps me understand a little, he says. It's complicated, but I'm getting there.
So there's a balance. Kids are encouraged to speak English, but are also given the opportunity to learn in their native language. In a math class, teacher Rosmery Milczewski elicits responses in multiple languages.
ROSMERY MILCZEWSKI: What is the slope?
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT: T is the slope.
MILCZEWSKI: Ok, good. Who can say that in Spanish for me?
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT: (Speaking Spanish).
MILCZEWSKI: Good, and in Chinese - say it in Chinese, too.
STARR: Even though the kids come from all over the globe, there are commonalities in their experiences. The educators at Flushing encourage students to share stories about leaving their home countries. That helps the kids realize that they're not the only ones who have dealt with issues like living apart from their parents. In the hallway, Yichen Hu shares a story with other 11th-graders. The 18-year-old from China tells them about a moment when she felt hope.
YICHEN HU, BYLINE: I felt hope when the officer told me yes, you can go to the U.S. now. I was thinking, if I could go to the U.S. then I can meet my dad again because he left China when I was 12, so I felt hope for reuniting with my dad.
STARR: Hu says being in a school where students can relate to what she's been through makes her feel less alone.
HU: I like this school very much, yeah. It makes me feel really connected.
STARR: This approach works for a lot of the students. Flushing's four-year graduation rate is 70 percent. That's roughly double the rate of English language learners in traditional high schools in New York City. For NPR News, I'm Alexandra Starr in New York.
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