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Diversity in a Virginia High School - 2002-11-08

English Feature #7-36911 Broadcast November 11, 2002

In the last decade, the Washington metropolitan area has become a magnet for new immigrants. A study shows that between 1990 and 1998, 250,000 immigrants from 193 countries settled in the nation’s capital and its suburbs. Today on New American Voices, we visit a high school in the ethnically diverse suburb of South Arlington, Virginia, that helps immigrants from various countries make a transition to life in America.

Columbia Pike is a busy commercial and residential corridor in South Arlington, leading south from the Potomac River and the Pentagon parking lots. It cuts through one of the Washington metropolitan area’s most diverse communities. Supermarkets offer Asian, latino and middle-eastern products; hair stylists in one local beauty salon speak seven different languages to cater to their multi-ethnic clientele; the restaurants that dot the street provide a wide and varied sampling of cuisines: Cambodian, Salvadorian, Vietnamese, Mexican, Peruvian, Bolivian, Thai.

A low yellow-brick building on Columbia Pike houses the Arlington Mill High School Continuation Program -- a high school that tailors its teaching style to the needs of its students. Dreama Frisk teaches American history here to students drawn from the area, including many from the immigrant populations of the Columbia Pike corridor.

“We have 20 students per period, and they range from Central and South America to the Middle East – we have a number of Moroccan students, students from Bangladesh, from Pakistan, and we have African countries also represented. I have a student from Equatorial Guinea, I’ve had students from Angola and now from Sudan.”

One of Mrs. Frisk’s students is Wol, one of the so-called “Lost Boys of Sudan”, a large group of orphaned young men of whom about 300 were resettled in the United States last year from the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya, where they grew up. Wol, who is 21, is very tall, very black, and very determined to take advantage of the opportunities offered him here.

“When I came here people really treated me nicely, because it’s not the same like where I came from, you know. My expectation is to get an education here and to go back and help my people, you know. I want to study [to be a] medical assistant. I am quite sure that I will achieve it.”

While attending classes at Arlington Mill High School – which, as an Arlington County public school, is free of charge, Wol has to work to support himself. One of his jobs is as a taxi dispatcher at a Washington area airport. He shares a rented apartment with three friends, also refugees from Sudan. Wol says that, for the time being, life is not easy for him.

“The most difficulty is – here, it’s different, you know, to go to school and at the same time you go to work, and you have to share all these things, and you have to make your time, to go to school, and to come back, and to go to sleep. That’s the most difficult, you know. There’s so much to do.”

Another one of Dreama Frisk’s students is Glinda Morales. Mrs. Morales is 22 and the mother of three children, ages six, two and one. She immigrated to the United States with her husband, a hospital worker, four years ago. She finds that where she lives now is not all that different from her native El Salvador.

“Like here in Arlington is like when I lived in San Miguel in my country, is almost the same. Not the people, because the language is different and here there are a lot of different cultures, but in my country we have almost the same streets, and malls…”

Like Wol, Glinda is determined to use education as a key to opening the door to her future. She wants to go on to nursing school. In the meantime, there is much that she enjoys about Arlington Mill high school.

“Oh, the teachers, because we have the best teacher of U.S. history and world history. She’s nice, because she lets us express what we think, and she cares about us. Personally, I like to ask questions, and I like to learn. My English is not really good, but I’m trying to learn more.”

Dreama Frisk says that Glinda Morales’s attitude is typical of the immigrant students at Arlington Mill school. Most are desperate to learn English, she says, and most work very hard, so that after graduating they can enroll in college. But they also bring with them knowledge and experiences that Mrs. Frisk tries to weave into her history lessons.

“Over the years I’ve discovered that our students bring with them a lot of information. They’ve lived through wars, revolutions, changes of their government, and I try to use that knowledge to connect it to what has happened in U.S. history. And as long as they see that they are connected, then it makes it easier for them to learn.”

Next week we’ll visit another class at Arlington Mill high school, where Thomas Levay, himself the son of immigrants from Hungary and Peru, teaches math to students from Latin America, Asia and the Middle East.