Manchester Central is New Hampshireâ€™s largest and oldest public high school, and its most diverse. Refugee and immigrant teenagers from nearly 70 countries attend classes at Central.
This week NHPR is presenting Culture Lessons - a series of reports and special programs about the school.
There are hundreds of kids at Central from Latin America and the Spanish-speaking islands of the Caribbean. Unlike refugees, who are sponsored by resettlement agencies, most Latinos are immigrants who arrived in Manchester on their own. As John Rudolph reports, Latino students at Central High School face a unique set of challenges.
Meet Isabel. Itâ€™s not her real name. But she agreed to speak to us on the condition that we not reveal her true identity. Isabel â€“ and her entire immediate family - are in the United States illegally. For Isabel to succeed in America is a matter of personal pride.
Tape â€¦ Isabel â€¦ I think I can give a lot to this country. I want to prove them that I am worth keeping, you know. But I canâ€™t do it because Iâ€™m not legal right now. :25
Isabel comes from Central America. Despite her illegal status, she has thrived since arriving in Manchester more than four years ago. She graduated from Central High School last June with a superb academic record, and it paid off.
Tape â€¦ Congratulations to all of you who are receiving awards this year (fade)â€¦
At an awards ceremony last spring Isabel accepted a college scholarship from a community group in Manchester.
Tape â€¦ Isabel â€¦ Oh my gosh, I just canâ€™t believe I got it /// Itâ€™s a big help.
But Isable had a hard time putting that scholarship to use. If she were in the US legally, with her grades, lots of colleges would have opened their doors to her. But because sheâ€™s undocumented most colleges wouldnâ€™t even look at her application. She was accepted by just one school â€“ a university closely affiliated with the church her family attends.
Even so Isabel has already defied the odds. Among Latino high school graduates in New Hampshire only one in ten graduates from college. Just completing high school is a challenge for many. The drop-out rate for Latinos at Central High School is estimated at about 40 per cent - almost double the rate for the student-body as a whole.
Those who do complete high school often make it by the barest margin. Gandy Terrero graduated from Central in 2000, but she almost didnâ€™t.
Tape â€¦ Gandy â€¦ There was many times I thought, why am I here? Should I leave? Some of my friends drop out their senior year, the last semester
Gandy was born in the Dominican Republic. When she was very young her family immigrated to New York. Then as she was entering 7th grade they moved to Manchester. Itâ€™s a path thatâ€™s been followed by many Latino immigrants in New Hampshire. Gandyâ€™s struggle with school was also typical.
Tapeâ€¦ Gandy â€¦ I never thought that I would be able to make it once I started going to high school. I thought it was so difficult. I never thought about college. I never thought about what college meant, what finishing high school meant in terms of how that would impact my life, or what would I make///// it always crossed my mind that at some point I would probably drop out of school just like my other friends.
Gandy is now working toward a college degree. She says her initial lack of interest in education reflected her upbringing. Her mother, who raised Gandy as a single parent, never completed high school. Gandy says her mom didnâ€™t really understand how the US educational system works.
Tape â€¦ Gandy â€¦ I remember in high school a teacher gave â€¦ said a comment in front of me, wasnâ€™t directed at me and she said, â€˜those Latino parents they donâ€™t care about their kids, they do whatever they want, they wake up whenever they want, and if they want to go to school theyâ€™ll go and their parents donâ€™t care. And I started thinking, â€˜man, that is my mother.â€™ Like sometimes I wake up and sheâ€™s just kinda, â€˜hey, your decision Gandy, if you want to go to school today itâ€™s your life decision.â€™ And grew up thinking maybe I have bad parents, maybe my culture is so horribly lazy and then I realized thatâ€™s not true. My mother taught me to be independent she taught me to make choices for myself and I realize that the most valuable things that I can think of my life â€“ come from home and it makes me the strong person that I am today.
The reasons why so many Latino kids struggle in school are complex.
Tape â€¦ Latino parents night sound. â€¦
In an attempt to address the problem Central High School held its first ever Latino Parents night last spring.
Tape â€¦ Frank Bass â€¦ Bienvenidos mes amigos (en) nuestra escuela (applause)
Assistant Manchester School Superintendent Frank Bass welcomed the parents in Spanish.
Trays of empenadas, and other Latin American foods were served, and translators were on hand to help parents whose English is limited.
Despite the effort, very few parents showed up for the meeting. Those who did had one main request; the school should hire more Hispanic teachers and administrators.
Frank Bass agrees this would help, but he insists the answer is not that simple.
Tape â€¦ Bass â€¦ I think much too much attention has been placed on that as the magic bullet that will solve the problem. I donâ€™ think thatâ€™s gonna solve the problem. What is, again, is student-to-student interplay. Gotta get it in your finger tips to understand who those people are, where theyâ€™re coming from. You even can play a little game. Like if you know that soccer is a big sport in their particular country, itâ€™s like baseball as it is to here. You mention two or three of their superstars, theyâ€™re gonna go haywire. Theyâ€™re gonna tell you stories, and then you tell them a story. And then again, youâ€™ve got â€˜em, the door is open. And now you can have that conversation. :45
But what is that conversation? In Manchester the problems facing Latino students are not well understood. Across the city a variety of efforts are underway to help Latino kids to succeed in school. But so far no one has been able to unravel the mix of language and cultural barriers and legal issues that make school so challenging for many students from Latin America and the Caribbean.