NEW ORLEANS, La. — A group of high school students gather inside a classroom, ready for a lesson about genetics, with chickens used as an example. The lesson is a bit more complex than it might seem at first glance, though.
All of the students in this class are learning English for the first time.
“Our education system needs to serve all kids,” said Emma Merrill, who heads up “Las Sierras Academy,” in New Orleans.
Las Sierras is an immersive, one-year program for high school students who do not speak English.
“Full immersion means kids are learning all day in English and speaking all day in English,” Merrill said.
Las Sierras is located inside George Washington Carver High School, a public charter and historically majority African American school in New Orleans.
“I think it's actually a point of pride, and our kids who are not in the program, they see them as their teammates,” said Principal Jerel Bryant.
By law, undocumented children and those children seeking asylum are allowed to attend schools in the U.S.
A study done just prior to the pandemic by the RAND Corporation found that there are about 321,000 such students in America's public schools. Of those students, 75% of them can be found in 10 states: California, Texas, Florida, New Jersey, New York, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia and Louisiana.
Bryant said Las Sierras plays an important role at their Louisiana school.
“It's a need. It's a critical need,” he said. “And, ultimately, we felt like we needed to look to ourselves to take action.”
With that, 48 students, known as scholars, started at Las Sierras last year, including Hector.
“I like it because the teachers here have a way of, every day, giving you an incentive to want to learn more, to improve yourself,” he said in Spanish.
Hector now lives with his father in New Orleans, after having made the journey from Mexico to the U.S. unaccompanied.
“It was really hard,” he said. “The journey is really hard, but thank God, I’m here.”
Merrill says 80% of the students at Las Sierras crossed the border unaccompanied. It’s an experience that can be traumatic, which is why the school does more than just teach English.
“Our kids have a mix of experiences,” she said. “We have a mental health professional on-staff because we know that this population experienced immense trauma, of trauma in their home country.”
Nine months ago, 17-year-old Stephanie arrived here from Honduras.
“I thought they might treat me differently in this country and that I wouldn’t be able to find a school that would teach me English,” she told us in Spanish. “I thought I would be alone in class and not understand anything.”
However, at Las Sierras, she’s been immersed in English from the get-go.
“All the teachers are very kind,” she said in English.
Emma Merrill said that when she looks out at her class, she sees students who are eager to learn.
“I see kids like Stephanie and Hector have so much strength,” she said, “and I want to do my best to serve them and honor them because of the work that they've put in to be here and to succeed.”
Las Sierras is now attracting attention from other schools around the country.
“I've gotten questions from schools in California and Colorado and Virginia about what we're doing and want to visit in order to ensure they can replicate it for their kids,” Merrill said.
As for the students, they have goals they want to reach in the future.
“I would like to go to a university and study economics or business,” Stephanie said.
For Hector, it’s a goal that hits a little closer to home.
“I’ve always wanted to be a Spanish teacher and teach Americans Spanish, for those who want to learn Spanish,” he said.
It’s a way of simultaneously paying it back and forward, with lessons in language.