As a child in Guinea, Hawa Fallah had to sell bananas in the seaside city of Conakry to pay her school fees. When business was bad, she didn’t go to school. The sixteen-year-old says she only got four years of schooling in her country. Her family moved to San Diego nine months ago for something better.

“Here the school is free,” Fallah said. “In our country, it is not free.”

She wants to be a doctor.

Fallah is part of an extraordinary program for newcomers with extraordinary challenges. Her classmates come from Burma, The Gambia, China, Mexico and elsewhere. Many of them can speak three or four languages, but are still learning English. Some are scarred by war or genocide; their schooling may have been scant. But to graduate high school, they must catch up to their classmates in a few short years.

It’s a fact that one teacher reminds them of when they get distracted, ringing a bell to refocus them.

“Don’t waste our time,” said Viraj Ward, chiding her class. “We don’t have a lot of time together.”

Crawford High is one of five school campuses in San Diego Unified that offer a special program for high school and middle school students who are new to English and to U.S. schools. It has separate, smaller classes meant to ease teens who may have never held a pencil into the rituals of U.S. schooling.

Crawford has three such classes where students get an intense, focused introduction to English, even when they’re studying math, science and social studies. Teens mix with other students at gym classes and lunch; some students who excel in math leave for algebra. But they spend the rest of the day with one teacher, learning about Valentine’s Day, the Pledge of Allegiance and sayings like “piece of cake.”

In Ward’s classroom on a gray morning, teens pieced together sentences in hesitant English, trying to describe cartoons of Homer Simpson dancing and munching on donuts. Ward flipped through the pictures on her overhead projector one by one, turning to a cartoon of Homer sitting by a fire.

“Making a hot,” one boy offered.

“Not a hot,” Ward said. “It’s called a fire.”

She reminded him to make a whole sentence.

While schools have long worked to help newcomer students with English classes, few in San Diego County have special, separate programs for them: Grossmont high schools don’t offer a separate newcomer program, nor do Sweetwater schools. Cajon Valley, an elementary school district, has a program for younger kids, who tend to adjust more quickly.

Newcomers remain rare: San Diego Unified estimates there are only 300 out of more than 34,000 high schoolers in the district. Less than 5 percent of English learners in the schools are new, making them remarkable even at campuses like Crawford, where more than a third of teens are learning English.

Scholars are still studying whether separating new students will help them catch up quicker, as newcomer programs have cropped up from Arkansas to New York over the past two decades.

“Separation can backfire,” said University of California Irvine sociology professor Ruben Rumbaut. “It can keep them from learning from other kids. On the other hand it can buttress them from the meanness and the putdowns that can be visited on newcomers. A lot depends on the school.”

Ward isn’t just teaching English. She also has to fill in the gaps in teens’ schooling, puzzling over how to teach abstract words like “although” to children who never learned those terms in their native tongues.

Even math tests are loaded with word problems that presume students are familiar with brownies or bicycles. And kids come and go almost every week, brought by new trouble, pulled away by cheaper rents and jobs elsewhere.

Many of the newcomers are also refugees: Across San Diego County, the number of refugee schoolchildren more than tripled from 378 to 1,134 between 2006 and 2009.

They slowly share their stories with their teachers as they pick up English, sometimes startling them with their pasts. Some were child soldiers.

“One kid told us on his first day that he had killed many people,” said Beth Hess, who works with the International Rescue Committee on after-school programs at Crawford.

Schools decide what grades to put children in based on their ages and school experience.

Putting teens with little schooling in elementary school would be disruptive and demeaning. Instead, they go into high school, where they’re pressed for time. Because older children could get more food in some refugee camps, teachers believe that some children are even younger than they claim to be.

And that can put even more pressure on newcomer kids. “There’s a lot missing between the first grade and the ninth,” said Marilyn Nahas, volunteer coordinator for the Episcopal Refugee Network.

Teachers estimate that the newcomer classes are pegged at a fifth grade level in reading and sixth grade in math. But teens have to prepare for a California high school exit exam with an English section designed at the sophomore level, with reading sections and questions like: “What information supports the idea that vitamin supplements are potentially dangerous?”

That test can decide whether they graduate.

Getting up to speed is daunting and time isn’t on their side. English takes years to master and can take even longer if students are older when they arrive, have little previous education and have spent little time here — all problems for many newcomers.

Teresa Walter, who oversees language acquisition programs in San Diego Unified, said she discourages schools from keeping kids in newcomer classes for more than a year. When they leave, they go to special English classes and move from class to class like other students. If they struggle to graduate, they can stay in high school as long as five years, but the oldest students often don’t want to stay, switching to adult or alternative schools instead.

The good news is they want to learn. “I say, ‘Think about why you’re here,’” said Alicia Flores, another teacher in the new arrival centers. “For some of them, it registers. For others — they’re teenagers.”

Spanish and Somali translation is available, but other, less common tongues can be a barrier.

When a Burmese family arrived on Thursday to pull their two sons from class to get green cards, their teacher, Gwen Osgard, jumped at the chance to chat with a female relative who spoke both English and Karen and could translate.

Osgard pointed to one son, a shy boy in a hoodie. “Excellent! Doing so well!” she told the woman, who translated to their father. The other boy was a different story. His pants sagged; she worried that he’d be mistaken for a gang member. “He does well in class, but I’m worried about his … style.”

The class grew antsy without its teacher. Osgard stuck her head back in. “You know how to be excellent!” she said, enunciating clearly. “You know how to be good so that I can talk to a parent!”

Teens settled back into their seats to read thin books, some meant for much younger children. A lanky boy in a soccer jersey opened up a glossy book about the actress Sarah Michelle Gellar. It’s hard to imagine how they’ll bridge the gap between here and the exit exam. But some have — and more will.

“They’ve already done the hardest part,” Ward said. “They made it here.”

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at and follow her on Twitter:

Dagny Salas was web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

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