If you think your high school experience was complicated and difficult to navigate, imagine going to school at Oakland International High School (OIHS) where students come from thirty-three countries and speak over thirty-two different languages. If you were a student at OIHS, your home country would be one of the following and you would speak one or several of its corresponding languages: Afghanistan, Bhutan, Brazil, Burma, Cambodia, China, Congo-Brazaville, D.R. Congo, Cuba, El Salvador, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Gabon, Ghana, Guatemala, Honduras, India, Iraq, Ivory Coast, Jordan, Liberia, Mexico, Mongolia, Nepal, Nicaragua, Nigeria, Philippines, Sri Lanka, Somalia, Thailand, Uzbekistan, Vietnam, and Yemen. As one-third of the students are refugees and “have escaped some of the world’s most violent and protracted conflicts,” you would have a one in three chance of being a refugee yourself. One-quarter of the students has come to the US unaccompanied by a parent. One-quarter has also arrived with small to major gaps in their formal education. It is not uncommon for students to arrive speaking little to no English. (100% are English language learners.) Since national conflicts don’t heed the academic calendar, new students are arriving at the school all the time. Nearly all the students have come to the United States within the last forty-eight months. There are under 100 students in each grade.
To get students up to speed with the American curriculum and competent in standard spoken and written English concurrently, students learn in heterogeneous groups, conduct a project-based curriculum, and benefit from ELL (English Language Learner) pedagogy integrated into all course content. Students often work in small groups where English is the common language. They take courses in the standard academics plus art, music, and technology. OIHS is a member of the Internationals Network for Public Schools whose mission is “to provide quality education to recently arrived immigrants by developing and networking small high schools based on the Internationals approach.” (For more information, visit http://www.internationalsnps.org.)
OIHS Students appear without infrequency in the local and even national news. In March 2015, the school was featured in the PBS Newshour’s Education Blog in a segment entitled, “Schools provide educational and mental health support to influx of undocumented teens.”
That same month, Senior Carlos Sura was featured in the same source for a letter he wrote to President Obama about Obama’s recent immigration program. "I agree with Obama that we should be deporting felons, and not families.” Sura asserts. “Families like mine are just here to have a good life and contribute to the community. We don't want to destroy this country. We just want to make it a better place to live—for us, and for all Americans."
OIHS opened in 2007 with funding from the Internationals Network of Public Schools, Oakland Unified School District, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Thank goodness for schools like OIHS that ignore the politics of immigration and educate these young people who have so much to offer. In fact, OIHS does more than educate these students. Staff members work to connect students with the legal representation and mental health services that are often prerequisite to the students’ education. As co-principal Carmelita Reyes says, “These are children, period. And so what their legal status is is immaterial. They’re students. They deserve an education. So I’m part of that system that is the safety net for these children.”