'New Kids,' in a School Created for Them

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"New Kids: Big Dreams and Brave Journeys at a High School for Immigrant Teens"
Brooke Hauser
Free Press, 2011
320 pages

Negotiating access to a New York city public school is perhaps one of the most time-consuming parts of an education reporter’s job. Often, a principal will say you have to ask the Department of Education, which will then tell you it is up to the principal to let you visit the school.

Sometimes the back-and-forth leads nowhere, and you are left wondering about the great stories you must be missing. Like the story of the new immigrants who attend one of the city’s international high schools, the topic of Brooke Hauser’s absorbing first book, “The New Kids: Big Dreams and Brave Journeys at a High School for Immigrant Teens.”

The book is most remarkable because of its intimate portrait of the International High School at Prospect Heights in Brooklyn, its teachers and its multilingual roster of students, some of whom arrive in class unable to speak a word of English and others who are simply “afraid to speak,” as Ms. Hauser describes them.

Through details, like the “nervous, pink flush” that creeps down a teacher’s neck as a student reads her (imperfect) college application essay to an entire classroom, Ms. Hauser reveals the depth of the access she received, as well as her keenly attentive eye: the tulle train of a student’s prom skirt spreads “like an overturned bowl of Hawaiian punch,” the hugs Haitian girls give one another feel “like body slams in a cage match,” the brown skin oozing from too-tight jeans looks “like fresh taffy.”

Ms. Hauser, 32, a freelance writer, wrote about the school’s first prom for The New York Times in 2008. The book grew out of the article; it takes readers through a year inside International, one of 12 high schools operated by the nonprofit Internationals Network for Public Schools, whose admission requirements include failing the city’s English language assessment test.

In the book’s 320 pages, she tackles themes that are familiar in New York schools, like religious norms, teenage pregnancy, unorthodox living arrangements and the question that has troubled young immigrants for, I guess, as long as they have been coming to this country: What does it really mean to be an American?

I spent years agonizing over it, after moving here from Brazil in 1998. But then I learned that “American” has many definitions; the students Ms. Hauser profiles embody several of them — “poor and middle class, Christian and Muslim,” she writes, “aspiring actors, doctors, zoologists and flight attendants.”

They are, she goes on, immigrants “divided into two categories: legal or illegal.”

Ms. Hauser makes no political statements, but her stories have a clear message that is perhaps best encapsulated by the speech that James Rice, whom the class of 2009 picked as teacher of the year, gave at graduation:

You have traveled by boat, or on foot across deserts and mountains, swum across rivers, sometimes with family, sometimes completely alone, some of you through war zones and refugee communities, all to get here.

It is the same path carved by young immigrants who came before them. To this day, most still end up in traditional public schools. Ms. Hauser’s book tells a story of possibilities for the few hundred of them who, every year, are lucky enough to find their way into a school created for them.