Even in a bean bag chair, 15-year-old Michelle sits up straight. With her hands on her knees, she looks down at the ground, smiling as she talks about her dreams of being a writer and a military doctor.
As a high school freshman, Michelle is already accomplishing a lot: She's president of the student government association at the International High School at Langley Park. She also writes for the school newspaper and plays basketball. To protect her privacy, we're only using using her first name.
Michelle came to the U.S. two and a half years ago from Puebla, Mexico. She says her mom came across the border eight years earlier. "We didn't have anyone," Michelle says in Spanish, talking about her and her older brother. So, they decided to make the trek to the U.S. despite knowing all the risks.
For many immigrant students, the trauma of crossing the border follows them into the classroom — affecting their performance and ability to learn. And that's where Michelle's school comes in.
At Langley Park, in Prince George's County, Md., 87 percent of students are Spanish-speaking. Out of 176 students, 24 countries are represented and 15 languages are spoken at home, not including English.
For students like Michelle, the problem is two-fold: Not only are they dealing with trauma, but they also belong to one of the most marginalized student populations.
According to a recent Stanford study, the achievement gap between ELL-Hispanic and white students is the largest in the context of race and ethnicity. And, the average high school graduation rate of ELLs is 19 percentage points lower than the national rate, 63 percent compared to 82.
In 1985, the network opened its first school to address that long-standing disparity. Since then, it has grown to 27 schools in seven states, including Washington, D.C.
And, it seems to be working. Last year, ELLs who attended the network's high schools in New York City graduated at a rate 16 percentage points higher than ELL students in the city's public schools, the nation's largest school district.
As for Langley Park, it hasn't had a graduating class, yet — it opened last fall — but results so far look promising. In the first class of students, 98 percent showed improvement in their English language skills.
How does the network do it when so many other schools struggle to educate ELLs? It seems to boil down to three simple things:
Every teacher is a language teacher. Tammy Tatro, who teaches technology, says implementing English-language instruction into her class curriculum is "really hard." But she does it by repeating herself and using visual aids to get concepts across to students.
Second, one of the network's vital principles is collaboration. That's why the classes are a mix of students with varying English language skills.
"They all want to lift each other up," Tatro says. "When one fails, especially if they're working on a team project, then they all kind of fail. So, they have to help each other."
A third key principle, Principal Carlos Beato says: the school's partnerships.
CASA de Maryland, a Latino advocacy organization, is one of Langley Park's partners. The organization offers legal advice for students and their families. Students can also take a social justice class from CASA to learn about advocacy and their rights, depending on their immigration status.
Partnerships like this are crucial, given the extra challenges many of these students face — homelessness, separation from their parents and, of course, the language barrier. Without tending to all of their social and emotional needs, Beato explains, "we wouldn't be getting any of the academics done."
Most of the network's schools employ a full-time social worker. At Langley Park, that's Lesly Lemus. Her job is to support students any way she can as they cope with life outside school, whether it's connecting them to community resources or just listening.
But, Lemus says, "some of our students don't want to participate in any event outside of school," because of fear of deportation. In those situations, she explains to students and their families how resources like CASA can help.
And it might be those systems that help keep attendance as high as it is, at 94 percent, even in the worrisome days following the election. Lemus says she remembers the "complete silence" of the cafeteria the day after. To many residents, this election was a milestone in an already growing fear in Prince George's County.
That fear began building during the Obama administration, when a wave of deportations in the county provoked the chief executive officer of the county's public schools, Kevin Maxwell, to write a letter to the Department of Homeland Security.
Despite the rising uncertainty, Michelle says she feels safe and loved at her school. "Everybody, from the teachers, to the principal, worry about every one of us," she says.
Michelle has three years left at Langley Park. Hoping to get a scholarship, she occasionally works at her mom's hair salon to save money for her dream college — Harvard University.
In fact, she says, a writing project at the school was what shaped her dreams for the future: "After graduation, I want to use my voice to help people understand that this country should stay completely free," Michelle says in Spanish.
And, she plans to do that by writing stories in English and Spanish that reflect the reality of immigrants' lives, like hers.