Sixteen-year-old Na Da Laing struggled in elementary school.
“I was different from other students,” she remembers. “I couldn’t speak English at all.”
Now, eight years later, she’s reading George Orwell’s Animal Farm.
In the U.S., roughly one in 10 students is an English language learner.
Many schools struggle to help them feel comfortable with their new language. Helping them get ahead and to college is another challenge entirely.
But East Allen University, Laing’s high school in Fort Wayne, Ind., has developed a unique program to do just that: English language learners there can graduate with a diploma and an associate’s degree. It’s a public high school — anyone can enroll — but the focus is on college prep and college credit.
Fort Wayne has one of the largest Burmese refugee populations in the country. At East Allen University, 20 percent of students are Burmese refugees.
Principal Doug Hicks says the district started this college-focused program five years ago. They chose a building in one of the poorest parts of the city, where a growing number of refugee families live.
“They don’t speak English in their household … they didn’t live in the country from day one,” Hicks says, adding that many of these students also struggle with poverty. “They have all these strikes against them that we would think, as educators, would keep people from achieving. Yet, they continue to do it.”
Even when her Burmese students are comfortable with English, Shannon Eichenauer, Laing’s English teacher, says they may struggle with context — but that can create powerful learning opportunities for all. Eichenauer remembers covering The Great Gatsby. Her American students didn’t think twice about the characters drinking alcohol during Prohibition.
“Then you have some Burmese students who don’t understand — to them, why would you break the law?,” she says. “So we have these conversations. It’s good, it’s rich. It adds to the classroom for sure.”
Eichenauer was teaching at a local college when Principal Hicks recruited her to get licensed in high school English and come to East Allen. It’s a similar story for other teachers here too, who feel like they’re now more than educators — they’re ambassadors for families who sometimes don’t understand the college system.
The school also offers college counseling and tutors, because even the paperwork can be new and unfamiliar.
For Na Da Laing, she’ll be the first in her family to have career options after she graduates high school next year. Back in Myanmar, her parents had to work before they reached eighth grade. She plans to attend Indiana University-Purdue University in Fort Wayne and work part time to help support her parents.
As for academics?
“I want to major in education and communication — a bachelor’s degree,” she says.
Na Da Laing wants to be an English teacher.