The schools belong to the Internationals Network for Public Schools, which started in the 1980s and now consists of 22 schools for recent immigrants in New York City, the Bay Area, and the Washington, D.C., region. Unlike traditional high schools that “track” students by skill level, the Internationals mix students who are totally new to English with students who are more proficient. There’s a focus on learning by experience instead of through lectures and memorization. The Internationals Network says its students outperform other English language learners at traditional high schools and are more likely to graduate.
Hanks-Sloan and Carlos Beato, the principal of the International High School at Langley Park, organized focus groups with immigrant families and students to understand what a school for them should look like. Both International High Schools have full-time social workers on staff. School starts and ends two hours later, reflecting research that teenagers perform better later in the day. One period each day is set aside for homework help or extracurricular activities that would otherwise happen after school, ranging from debate team to yoga.
The schools are only open to students currently taking ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) classes. But when they opened last fall, 270 students (out of 700 who were eligible) applied for 200 freshman seats. The result is “school[s] of choice,” says Hanks-Sloan. “Students realize that they’re valued and they have an opportunity to be successful. They get to be a part of a small school.”
Instead of letter grades, students are graded for “competency-based learning,” or skills they’ll use after high school. They receive scores in four categories: social-emotional learning, language, critical thinking, and content knowledge. It’s thought to be a more accurate representation of a student’s progress in navigating a new language and culture.
The Prince George’s schools are the first suburban campuses in the Internationals network. One has its own (temporary) building in Langley Park, a neighborhood near the District line that’s historically been a gateway for immigrants from Central America. The International High School at Largo is in a middle-class black suburb racked by the housing crisis and rapidly diversifying with African and Hispanic immigrants.
The surrounding neighborhoods are filled with large, comfortable-looking homes. But there’s a dying “lifestyle center” (another nearby mall has already been demolished) and an abandoned, half-built megachurch. The school shares a building with Largo High, a traditional high school that nearly closed due to dwindling enrollment. The schools have separate entrances and their own principals and staff, but share a cafeteria, music programs, and gym.
The International High Schools caused some tension with Largo High and members of the area’s black community, who felt they were taking resources from other students. The county’s chapter of the NAACP publicly opposed the schools, arguing that they violated Brown v. Board of Education by creating separate schools for immigrants. There’s also a substantial body of research saying that students from disadvantaged backgrounds perform better in racially and socioeconomically mixed schools.