International, refugee high school gives students new opportunities

Kowser Ali, a junior, at Geo International High School, learns about the United States election process Monday, Nov. 28, 2016 in Mr. Spalding’s American Government class. GEO International is the first of its kind to be opened in the southeast. The curriculum is designed for students to learn English and critical thinking skills. Tiger Williams/HERALD

Alex Sandefur

Inside the round annex building of Warren Central High School which houses the Geo International High School, Will Spalding stands in front of his students gathered in room 306, asking questions about the bell ringer on the board.

In this American history class, students who were born in Somalia, Kenya, Thailand and Burma learn about the Fugitive Slave Act and the Civil War.

“Can you think of a situation today where someone would want to run away from a bad situation they’re in,” Spalding asks the class as he walks in between the clusters of four desks around the room. “We are a school of immigrants; can you relate to those on the Underground Railroad?”

The students who sit at desks and mismatched tables speak a mix of languages: Vietnamese, Arabic and English.

A boy raises his hand and Spalding calls on him.

“Faisal. Go ahead.”

Faisal Hassan is from Somalia, but he’s spent most of his life living in a refugee camp in Kenya with his mother and sisters. His family eventually moved to the U.S. to live with his aunt and uncle who have been in Bowling Green for 20 years.

He likes to joke around usually, referring to himself in the third person, but his tone is serious when he speaks of his home country. He talks of how many people who live there try to escape across the gulf to Yemen. If the Yemen government catches these escapees, it sends them back to Somalia. Hassan, with the help of Spalding, helps compare this to Northerners helping plantation owners send slaves back to the South.

Spalding spends most of the class period walking around the room to assist students while they work in groups reading documents from the Civil War. He answers questions, helps them sound out difficult words, but mostly he encourages them.

The teachers at GIHS have learned to modify their teaching methods to their nontraditional students. The 185 students at the international high school come from 20 different countries and speak 29 different languages. 87 percent of the students are refugees.

According to Skip Cleavinger, director of English learner programs for Warren County Public Schools, this is GIHS’s first semester in operation and the first school of its kind in the southeast.

GIHS is modified from the Internationals Network school system in New York. According to its website, the Internationals Network is a support organization working to make sure immigrant students learning English have access to quality education with a network of 15 schools.

Cleavinger brought the idea of a similar school to Rob Clayton, the superintendent of Warren County, after noticing a rise in the district’s numbers of students in the English learner programs.

In 2012, there were 800 English learners in Warren County’s school district. In 2016, that number swelled to 1,250 with most attending Warren Central, one of the four traditional high schools in Bowling Green.

Bowling Green itself has seen a rise in the number of immigrants since the opening of the International Center of Kentucky. Starting in 1981, the International Center has resettled over 10,000 immigrants from 30 countries in Bowling Green and the surrounding areas. According to Census data, in 2014 Bowling Green’s population was 12.7 percent foreign-born residents, which is up from 10.6 percent in 2012. The two largest cities in the state, Louisville and Lexington, have populations that are 6.4 percent and 8.6 percent foreign-born residents respectively.

In 2015, after getting approval from Clayton to begin working on creating Bowling Green’s own international high school, Cleavinger approached Mike Stevenson, the principal of Warren Central about creating a partnership. Warren Central seemed like the natural choice because of its high population of English learning students. Stevenson jumped on board and arranged a steering committee to help with the planning of the new school.

Cleavinger and Stevenson approached Adam Hatcher to be the principal of GIHS. A WKU graduate, Hatcher had been working at Warren Central for six years as assistant principal and head of the English learners department of the school.

“I was excited to be able to be on the ground floor for something so needed in this area,” Hatcher said.


Back in room 306 with Spalding and his American history students, the bell rings signaling the end of third period. Students hurriedly pack their bags and rush out to the rounded center of the circular annex building. In between classes, students form little clusters, switching between their native languages and English, sometimes in the same sentence.

Ameliah Leonhardt is one of the English teachers at GIHS. She says at the beginning of the school year, students usually hung out with other students who speak the same language as them. She said she is beginning to notice a change as students have become more inclined to mingle with those who don’t speak the same native language as them.

Another bell indicates the beginning of fourth period. Students are reluctant to head to class, but the teachers eventually get them into their classrooms.

In room 303, Leonhardt is teaching a knitting class to a room full of girls. The students sit in a large circle, taking up most of the room. The girls are bent over their brightly colored scarfs, working to count their rows as they knit. They talk with each other as they work, mostly in English, but the conversation flows. The students aren’t focused on translating every word right like they are in other classes.

Leonhardt says she started this class because working with their hands and knitting can be very therapeutic to the students.

“Here they get to focus on something other than English all day,” Leonhardt said. “Yes, they speak English in the discussion circle, but it gives their mind a break getting to do something with their hands.”

The students chatter throughout the class until the bell rings for lunch at 11. Because GIHS has no place for all the students to gather to eat, the students travel down hallway leading outside to Warren Central everyday to eat.


On the school’s first day on Aug. 10 of this year, the school had 141 students. Today the school has 185 students and administration is looking to add another teaching position to the eight already in place. Since all the classrooms in the annex are currently occupied, the district will have to find another location for the school if an additional teacher is hired.

Students who attend GIHS have to chose it as their school of choice because of its classification as an alternative school. Designed for students who were in English learner programs at the other schools in Bowling Green, students range in age from 15 to 21.

After a student turns 21, they are kicked out of the public school system. If they want to pursue a high school diploma, they must get their GED, which is not always easy for a student whose native language is not English.

“Kids who are 18 or 19 come into this country with limited or no high school experience and are expected to finish high school before they’re 21. They have to have to have 22 credits to graduate or they don’t,” Cleavinger said.

This is a challenge GIHS has been working to overcome. While they are currently working on an exception for international students for that rule, for the time being, GIHS students are treated the same as any high school student.

During second period, certain students who need more credits to graduate come to the library, room 305, to work on their Apex learning classes. Students in Kentucky are usually given their credit hours by how much time they spend in the classroom. With Apex learning, students earn credit for assignments completed online, according to Michele Lenoir, another English teacher at GIHS.

Cleavinger says there are two principles that make GIHS work — project-based learning and language and content integration — both of which are ideas that come from the Internationals Network.

Project-based learning starts with four students who all speak different languages with varying degrees of proficiency in English. They work together on an assigned project in class and because their only common language is English it encourages them to work on their English skills.

Usually in English learner programs, students will have one class where they learn vocabulary words for their other classes. However, with language and content integration, students learn the vocabulary in each of their individual classes.


Fifth period comes after the students return from lunch. They file back into the round room at GIHS, rowdy from their free time.

Lenoir sweeps into room 302, where her fifth period dual-credit public speaking class waits for her to begin the day’s lesson. In this class, students earn college credit for passing the class. Today the students are helping their classmate, Frederic Ndayirukiye with his upcoming speech.

Ndayirukiye will be speaking about success and failure the following day in front of the whole school. His speech is a part of the school’s GEO Talks, a series Lenoir is hoping to make a regular event at the school.

“It gives the students confidence,” Lenoir said while moving a lectern onto the stage. “And they’re good role models for the other kids who see them get up there. They think they want to do that someday and I’ve had a lot of students who have an interest in giving their own speeches.”

She instructs some of the students to stay in the classroom to make posters of quotes from Ndayirukiye’s speech that will hang behind him as he speaks. The other students will sit on the floor around the perimeter of the round middle room in the annex and listen to Ndayirukiye’s speech as he practices.

Ndayirukiye walks to the lectern and starts his speech.

“You only fail once you stop trying,” he starts, shaky and quiet at first.

Lenoir motions for him to speak up. His classmates listen as he speaks to them about success and failure. Most of them lived in refugee camps before coming to the U.S. Some have lost a parent, work full-time jobs outside of school and most have faced ridicule for their English. Now, they are listening intently to their classmate in a high school structured for kids like themselves.

“Today I encourage you to strive for success and to not let anyone tell you you are less because everyone is equal.”

Reporter Alex Sandefur can be reached at 270-745-6011 or [email protected].