Three years ago, Manuel Sola left his family in Honduras to come to San Francisco on his own. The soft-spoken teen planned to work and send money home.
“When you come to United States, you have a dream to help your family,” he said. “America is a dream — it’s a dream that everybody has.”
Sola soon realized that learning English was the best way to get ahead, and when he learned school was free here, he signed up.
“In our country, if you don’t have money, you can’t go to school,” he explained.
Sola, 18, is now a junior at the San Francisco Unified School District’s International High School, where he learns alongside fellow immigrants from countries as far-flung as China, Kazakhstan and Morocco. For its first two years, the school was housed in a section of Mission High School, but this year it got its own building, the former Bryant Elementary School in the Mission District.
“It feels like validation,” co-Principal Sonia Geerdes said.
Unlike other schools, International High focuses on teaching English to students who arrive knowing very little. But teachers — most of whom are multilingual — encourage students to keep using their native languages as well.
“I’m always amazed by how resilient our students are, how they work for their education, what that really means,” Geerdes said.
In many cases, students are literally working, supporting their families with after-school and night jobs that make it hard to get schoolwork done.
“There are a lot of cooks — you can tell the night cooks by the burn marks on their arms,” said Angelina Romano, the school’s wellness coordinator. “Everyone came here for a better opportunity, and part of that is going to school, but the family also has to pay rent.”
Romano runs the school’s wellness center, a cozy corner of the school that includes offices for a nurse and therapist, along with couches and comfortable chairs. Students can come to pick up brochures about birth control, get a Band-Aid or simply hang out between classes and talk about what’s on their minds.
“We make a lot of tea,” Romano said.
Gabby Flores, 15, a sophomore who moved to The City from El Salvador, said she was still getting used to life in America after being here for a year.
“It’s a really nice place, and comfortable, but at the same time I don’t feel like it’s my own country because I’m not really adapted,” she said.
Flores lives with her mother and grandmother, who both work long hours cleaning houses. She takes care of her younger brother after school and has to cook dinner. But despite the busy days, she plans to go to college.
“When I came here, I didn’t speak any English,” she said. “And now, look at me!”
Number of students: 300
Years students have been in the U.S.: Zero to four
Chinese speakers: about 150
Spanish speakers: about 100
Other languages spoken: Vietnamese, Tagalog, Russian, Arabic, French