The Seattle World School, a transitional learning center for refugee and immigrant students, handed out its first high school diplomas after a long struggle to become a credit-bearing high school.
Down a hot hallway in a mazelike brick building on Seattle’s Capitol Hill, girls in full-length hijabs scurried past those in jean shorts and T-shirts. Outside, chalk messages scrawled in multiple languages celebrated the last day of class for 13 seniors who, on Tuesday, became the school’s first-ever graduates.
Since 1980, the Seattle World School has existed as a tiny learning center for the children of refugees and immigrants, moving from one temporary location to another. In 2013, school-board members concerned about overcrowding almost reneged on their promise of a new home for the school in a remodeled elementary building nearby.
For most of those years, the school offered a crash course in English and other subjects for its students, many of whom arrived without transcripts from their home country and some without any schooling whatsoever.
Grads from around the globe
The 13 first-ever graduating seniors of the Seattle World School hail from five countries.
Source: Seattle World School
With few exceptions, those students stayed about a year, then left their classmates — often their first friends in a new country — and trickled into high schools with thousands more students and fewer services tailored to students learning English. Many of them never finished high school, partly because classes they took at the transitional center counted only as electives — not as courses required for graduation.
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But about four years ago, school-district leaders approved a plan to allow students to spend their full high-school career at the World School.
On Tuesday, the school handed out its first diplomas.
“This graduation is so important to us,” said Principal Concie Pedroza. “It’s sort of like our stamp on the world, that we’re here.”
Blueprints for the World School’s permanent home — which will be part of a remodeled T.T. Minor Elementary School a mile away, scheduled to open in 2016 — hang outside Pedroza’s office.
They’re a reminder of the school’s future — and its past. While the school now can confer diplomas, many still think of it as a transition program from the decades it was illustriously named the Secondary Bilingual Orientation Center.
“That’s our biggest thing we’re facing, is that people still see us as a transition school,” Pedroza said.
The school still offers a newcomer program for about 100 students in grades 6-12, and those students still move on after about a year to other schools. Some leave seeking advanced courses that the World School doesn’t offer, while others want a more quintessential American high-school experience.
But 175 students are enrolled in the school’s new four-year program, including the 13 seniors who graduated last week.
It’s a program that parents have wanted for years, said Irene Rodriguez, a teacher and administrator who has worked at the World School since the 1990s.
“Their children weren’t doing well in regular high schools, and they were asking for them to stay longer,” Rodriguez said.
The school added teachers and new, project-based courses for the high-school track, which continues to give students support learning English and, at the same time, allows them to earn credits they need to graduate from high school. Nearly all World School teachers have two endorsements: one in a subject area, like science, and another in how to teach that content to students whose first language is not English.
Many schools offer some classes with intensive help for English language-learners, Rodriguez said, but the World School is one of only a handful across the country where every student is taught using such language-intensive and hands-on instruction every day, in every class.
School is “home”
Before the graduation ceremony last Tuesday, the 13 graduating seniors — nine boys and four girls — scooted chairs into a circle in an English classroom.
On the chalkboard was a poem applauding them, and under a poster that read, “School days remaining before graduation,” someone had scrawled a big zero.
Rusty Hibbert, the school’s counselor, hashed out last-minute reminders.
“Get out your cellphones,” Hibbert said. “I’m going to give you my number, so that if you’re lost you can call me.”
“No prank calls!” said Nino Chaboshvili, 19, who moved from the country of Georgia to Seattle in 2013. Chaboshvili — the school’s first prom queen this spring — tried for a week to attend Garfield High. When she couldn’t discuss a schedule change in person with a busy school counselor, she said, she switched back to the World School.
“I didn’t feel at home like I did here,” she said.
Hibbert told the students to eat something before the ceremony, drink lots of water and wear comfortable shoes.
Anh Bach, 19, grinned. He slipped off one of his flip-flops and showed it off like a trophy, drawing laughter.
“Exhibit A of what not to wear,” Hibbert said.
Five years ago, when Bach traveled from Vietnam to live with his dad in Seattle, he hardly spoke a word of English.
Rodriguez, the longtime administrator, remembers the day he walked in. Like a deer in headlights, she said. Bach still talks quietly, and sometimes misses Vietnam.
He was friends with Cuong Uong, the World School junior who drowned June 7 in Lake Washington. Though Bach wasn’t on the beach that evening, he and others from the school prayed at the shore the next day. In less than a week, the school raised $8,000 to fly Uong’s mother from Vietnam and pay for his funeral expenses.
A tattoo of a lion covers much of Bach’s left forearm, which he said stands for loneliness. For the loneliness he felt on the weekends at boarding school in Vietnam, when all the families but his came to drive their children home. His father was in the U.S. and his mother, he said, lived too far away.
Now, Bach is graduating with two scholarships, and hopes to one day be a police officer.
The World School, he said, is his second home.
“It’s like a big house, a big family.”
The big day
Bach wore sneakers to his graduation.
He and the other dozen seniors pulled on black robes and blue and green stoles minutes before the ceremony began. They traded high-fives and handshakes with the audience as they walked down the aisle toward 13 empty chairs by a stage on Seattle University’s campus.
After a quick recap of how the school arrived at this milestone, Pedroza, the principal, asked for a moment of silence for Uong, who, she said, would be disappointed if graduation didn’t continue.
Students took the stage one by one with a teacher at their side. Some gave speeches in English that were then translated so their families could understand; others talked in both English and their native language.
Teachers spoke, too, praising students who were classroom aides, who juggled jobs and family obligations to be at school, who were sick for months but came back to class. Many of the students recounted their arrival in the U.S. after leaving home with little more than a sister’s or father’s promise of a good education.
After the students spoke, each one walked on stage in turn, shaking hands with Seattle Superintendent Larry Nyland and School Board President Sherry Carr.
After the ceremony, pop music filled the room. Bach posed with his family for a photo, clutching the case emblazoned with words never before seen on a high- school diploma: “Seattle World School.” An elderly family member put his hand on Bach’s shoulder.
Later, posing for another shot, he draped his arms around a half-dozen of his classmates, clutching flowers in one hand.
Then a friend pulled him aside, holding out a phone for a selfie.
Not lonely. Not today.