NEW YORK -- A alternative public high school in Inwood has seen a quarter more students enrolling this semester, and many are newly arrived asylum seekers. Staff at the High School for Excellence and Innovation are adapting to a growing need for specialized education.
"It's definitely a journey," said HSEI's founding principal Tyona Washington, "depending on where and what levels that students are when they come to us."
Washington said enrollment numbers are up 25% this school year, and instead of isolating the new students, the school is embracing them, implementing a buddy system with more established peers to help them acclimate. Plus, new strategic reading classes keep all students on the same page.
"We start with the phonics," said HSEI Dean of Students Anderson Almonte. "We do levels, and we put the entire school part of it, like all the way to the ones that speak English."
Even through smiles, however, the memories have not faded. 17-year-old Jhoana Solano escaped Colombia with her mother.
"Day and night, walking, walking, walking," she recounted in Spanish.
"Crossing rivers, rivers, rivers, rivers," added Alexis Hayo, also 17.
Hayo had an asthma attack as he walked here through jungles, mountains and rivers from Ecuador alongside his best friend and his mother, who is battling cancer. They left his father behind to recover from heart trouble.
"When they said welcome to America, it's like I made it and I did it," Hayo said, smiling with tears welling in his eyes. "I hugged my mom so much."
HSEI is now helping Hayo's family navigate this new world. His father arrived in the city this week.
"They can use any tool to get to us, because we're there," said family engagement director Jose Alvarez. "We understand we have families to take care of at the same time, but they are part of our family as well."
Alvarez came to the US from the Dominican Republic when he was 10 and found himself in the same building as a middle school student. Now, he coordinates monthly parent workshops, helping them connect to further resources.
Solano said those who make the trip here come with purpose, overcoming obstacles, eager for a better life. Friends who feel like family help guide the way.
As a public transfer school, HSEI is always enrolling students in need with support from the district. To learn more, click here.
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