Warren County is home to a new high school — the first of its kind in the South, according to school officials — that is designed to help international students learn English and graduate on time.
GEO International High School, which stands for Gateway to Educational Opportunities, first opened its doors to around 180 English language learner students in August. It’s a school that takes a different, more holistic and inclusive approach to education for students new to the English language, said Skip Cleavinger, Warren County Public Schools director of English learner programs.
“It relies on the native language as an asset, instead of something that’s blocking your ability to teach somebody,” Cleavinger said.
English language learners, or ELLs, are immigrants or refugees who “may benefit from various types of language support programs,” according to the National Council of Teachers of English. The Warren County district educates a significant number of these students, Cleavinger said.
He said there are roughly 15,500 students enrolled in the school system, and 1,762 of those students are classified as ELLs — 11 percent of the district’s total students.
This is a 171 percent increase from 2007 when Cleavinger said 650 students were enrolled in ELL programs across the district.
But, to truly understand the population breakdown of Warren County students, one must look even further.
Cleavinger said 1,188 additional students have tested out of the ELL programs and are still enrolled in the district. When these two groups are added together, this means just under 3,000 Warren County students, or almost one in five, are enrolled in or have been enrolled in ELL programs.
It is this growing population that lead Cleavinger and other school officials to start thinking about establishing an international school in Warren County in 2011.
That year, they started Gateway to Educational Opportunities Academy with hopes that it would serve as a separate learning environment for ELL students, according to the Bowling Green Daily News. The academy closed a year later.
Around that time, Cleavinger said they connected with an organization called Internationals Network for Public Schools.
Internationals Network is a New York City-based nonprofit that helps create and support international schools throughout the country. Warren County Public Schools signed a three-year contract with the organization to help start GIHS.
Cleavinger said the district pays Internationals Network for help addressing the “challenges of opening a school, hiring staff, getting kids going, buying materials.”
Cleavinger said lessons at GIHS are taught in an innovative way, and he believes they’re effective.
“The traditional way to teach a kid [English as a second language] in the golden days was to pull him out of the room, and teach them vocabulary and grammar and so on,” Cleavinger said. “So it became fragmented. The content teachers were in charge of teaching math and science, and the ESL teachers were in charge of teaching language.”
At GIHS, there are no separate English classes. The students, who are from 24 different countries and speak 20 native languages, take math, English, science, social studies and elective classes together. They sit in rectangular clusters of desks and tables and are encouraged to work in groups, whether speaking in English or their native languages.
Some teachers, Cleavinger said, took a pay cut to start working with these students at GIHS.
A student who wants to attend the school must go through what English teacher Michele LeNoir called a “stringent application process.” She said applicants are expected to be highly motivated English language learners who have lived in the United States for less than four years.
LeNoir is one of eight teachers at the new school. So far, teaching at GIHS has presented a unique challenge, she said.
“This is my 27th year of teaching, and I’ve never had to teach in this way,” Lenoir said. “It’s like you’re teaching the content at a high level, but you’re doing all of these strategies to help [students] understand it, building their language skills. It’s a lot of work.”
As she plans her lessons, LeNoir works with Ameliah Leonhardt, who is also an English teacher. They both said that they’ve had to overcome some unexpected obstacles as they’ve structured and restructured their lesson plans.
“I was very surprised when I first started here because some students, when I would ask them to write their name, they weren’t able to do that, so something as basic as that is very surprising,” Leonhardt said. “A lot of it is sometimes because some of the students come from refugee camps or war, where education, obviously, wasn’t a top priority. Your safety is more important than that.”
Leonhardt said she’s had to learn how to asses students’ skills by allowing them to “show what they know,” whether that’s through writing, speaking or even knitting.
“I also teach a knitting class, and that’s very good for the students because that’s not a language-based class,” she said. “So they have an opportunity to feel competent in something like that.”
Both core content classes and electives are primarily based on projects, both teachers said, and students seem to recognize the difference.
“The way we work is mostly projects, not taking a test,” said Zaid Ali, a senior from Iraq. “We usually do a project with a group and then present it, which is different than regular schools where you mostly take notes and then do a test.”
Another student, Frederic Ndayirukiye, said being in classes with other international students has made learning — and speaking up — easier than in a traditional American high school.
“Here, we all participate because we have nothing to fear because we’re all the same, and we have limited knowledge [of English],” Ndayirukiye said.
Previously, Ndayirukiye attended Warren Central High School. He is originally from Tanzania.
Cleavinger said GIHS provides a fresh, new and hopefully successful learning environment for students like Ali and Ndayirukiye.
“They’re working in tandem,” Cleavinger said. “We don’t have to stop content instruction and wait for English to come up to a certain level and then start up content again, which is what happens in high schools.”