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SF high school for recent immigrants finds new home

Michael Barba | April 30, 2017 | SF Examiner

Original article

From a former elementary school on York Street, Principal Julie Kessler watches immigration patterns unfold across the world.

Kessler, who is known as Ms. Julie at San Francisco International High School, welcomed a wave of unaccompanied minors from countries like Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala in 2014 as part of a spike in Central American children fleeing their home countries for the U.S. that year.

Then this year, the small school had a surge in Arabic-speaking students — likely a result of the Yemeni Civil War.

“When we moved here it was an absolutely fine place,” Kessler said of the school’s current home. “Who knew what immigration patterns would be like.”

Over the past six years, International High School has outgrown the former elementary school in the Mission District. There are now nearly 400 students who cram into the two-story school on any given weekday, where the library doubles as a classroom and the partitions on the auditorium stage pull back to reveal a weight room.

“We’ve been really scrunched here,” Kessler said.

Come next school year, International High School will move into a larger campus less than a mile away in Potrero Hill at the former Enola Maxwell Middle School. The move is part of the larger reshuffling of several charters and small schools in San Francisco.

“We are really excited to be able to move into those facilities,” Kessler said. “Our kids are going to be able to have the things that every high schooler deserves.”

International High School started in 2009 with a group of ninth graders at Mission High School. All of the students who attend are recent immigrants to the U.S. and English-language learners, while about three quarters of them have jobs, according to Kessler.

These are “not your typical 16-year-olds,” Kessler said.

San Francisco Unified School District staff were reserving the campus as the “most logical facility” to open a new middle school, but offered it to International High after deciding not to open a new middle school next school year.

“We still have some things to work out in terms of what we’re going to do in the long term with the Enola Maxwell site,” said Board of Education President Shamann Walton.

The move is significant for students now because it shows the district supports them at a time when anti-immigrant sentiment is on the rise under the new federal administration, according to Kessler.

“It’s an important message for our kids right now,” Kessler said.

Kessler said some students have been more anxious since the election.

“We have a focus on making sure that our immigrants are protected and we’re going to continue that focus,” Walton said. “I’m definitely excited for them to have space that they want to be in.”

The school moved to the campus at 1050 York St. in 2011 and has been growing there since.

The students have no gym and no permanent science lab or auditorium (a shared space on the first floor has a stage and fold-up tables, serving alternatively as a cafeteria or fitness area). There are just two bathrooms and not enough stalls, one per floor.

“The request for a new building was prompted by a need for upgrades to support programs such as athletic space, additional classrooms, and formalized library use,” said SFUSD spokesperson Gentle Blythe.

“SFIHS has a history of strong results in academic and socio-emotional growth of students and SFUSD leaders want to acknowledge the great work of the school community and continue to support the school’s positive progress,” Blythe said.

At International High, classroom doors are left open and student work covers the walls, offering glimpses into their lives.

“It is difficult in the U.S. because we are discriminated against for not being U.S. residents,” reads the writing on one senior’s portrait in Spanish.

A set of papers forms a rainbow on another wall. “I will not discriminate,” reads a blue sheet, simply signed “Julio.”

International High will move to Enola Maxwell in June and is expecting to share the campus with a charter school called the New School San Francisco, according to Kessler.

The New School did not respond to a request for comment.

The campus has been mostly unused except by administrators since its former tenant International Studies Academy merged with John O’Connell High School earlier this school year, according to Kessler.

At the new campus, International High will have a gym, more classrooms and science facilities.

A K-8 charter called the Mission Preparatory School is expected to replace International at the York Street campus.

Page updated on 04/30/17