Sixteen-year-old Na Da Laing struggled in elementary school.
"I was different from other students," she remembers. "I couldn't speak English at all."
Now, eight years later, she's reading George Orwell's Animal Farm.
In the U.S., roughly one in 10 students is an English language learner.
Many schools struggle to help them feel comfortable with their new language. Helping them get ahead and to college is another challenge entirely.
But East Allen University, Laing's high school in Fort Wayne, Ind., has developed a unique program to do just that: English language learners there can graduate with a diploma and an associate's degree. It's a public high school — anyone can enroll — but the focus is on college prep and college credit.
Fort Wayne has one of the largest Burmese refugee populations in the country. At East Allen University, 20 percent of students are Burmese refugees.
Principal Doug Hicks says the district started this college-focused program five years ago. They chose a building in one of the poorest parts of the city, where a growing number of refugee families live.
"They don't speak English in their household ... they didn't live in the country from day one," Hicks says, adding that many of these students also struggle with poverty. "They have all these strikes against them that we would think, as educators, would keep people from achieving. Yet, they continue to do it."
Even when her Burmese students are comfortable with English, Shannon Eichenauer, Laing's English teacher, says they may struggle with context — but that can create powerful learning opportunities for all. Eichenauer remembers covering The Great Gatsby. Her American students didn't think twice about the characters drinking alcohol during Prohibition.
"Then you have some Burmese students who don't understand — to them, why would you break the law?," she says. "So we have these conversations. It's good, it's rich. It adds to the classroom for sure."
Eichenauer was teaching at a local college when Principal Hicks recruited her to get licensed in high school English and come to East Allen. It's a similar story for other teachers here too, who feel like they're now more than educators — they're ambassadors for families who sometimes don't understand the college system.
The school also offers college counseling and tutors, because even the paperwork can be new and unfamiliar.
For Na Da Laing, she'll be the first in her family to have career options after she graduates high school next year. Back in Myanmar, her parents had to work before they reached eighth grade. She plans to attend Indiana University-Purdue University in Fort Wayne and work part time to help support her parents.
As for academics?
"I want to major in education and communication — a bachelor's degree," she says.
Na Da Laing wants to be an English teacher.
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
In the United States, about 1 in every 10 students is an English-language learner, and many schools struggle to get these students comfortable with their new language. Getting them ahead and to college is another hurdle.
One school in Indiana gets that done because their English learners are graduating high school with a diploma and associate's degree. Claire McInerny of Indiana Public Broadcasting went to Fort Wayne to find out how.
CLAIRE MCINERNY, BYLINE: Fort Wayne - it's the second largest city in Indiana, home to around 250,000 people. And it has one of the largest Burmese refugee populations in the country, including 16-year-old Na Da Laing and her family.
NA DA LAING: I struggled in my elementary school because I was different from other students. I couldn't speak English at all.
MCINERNY: Now, eight years later, she's reading George Orwell's "Animal Farm" in English.
LAING: I know conflict will arise because the leader, Napoleon, is going to break the rules of killing someone. So I think the animals going to go against him.
MCINERNY: For Laing, it's a huge accomplishment to be here. This is a college-level course. She's earning credit for high school and college-level English. And this is the norm for all of her classes. If Laing and her classmates stay on track, they can complete up to half of their Bachelors Degree credits when they leave high school.
At Laing's school, East Allen University - but it's a high school - 20 percent of the students are Burmese refugees.
DOUG HICKS: Don't forget our yearly semi-formal dance will be held on...
MCINERNY: This is a public school. Anyone can enroll. But the focus is on college prep and college credit.
HICKS: Students, Mrs. Irvins (ph) will be at EAU all day on Wednesday...
MCINERNY: Principal Doug Hicks says the district started this program five years ago. They chose a building in one of the poorest parts of the city where a growing number of refugee families live. Hicks says they are some of his hardest working students.
HICKS: They don't speak English in their household. They didn't live in the country from day one. They have all the strikes against them that we would think as educators that would keep people from achieving, yet they continue to do it.
MCINERNY: Even when Burmese students here get comfortable with English, Shannon Eichenauer, who's Laing's English teacher, says there's more nuance to their learning. When reading "The Great Gatsby," for example, American students don't think twice about the characters drinking alcohol during prohibition.
SHANNON EICHENAUER: And then you have some Burmese students who they don't understand - to them, like, why would you break the law? So we have those conversations, and it's really - it's really good. It's rich. It adds to the classroom for sure.
MCINERNY: Eichenauer was teaching at a local college when Principal Hick's recruited her to get licensed in high school English and come here. That's the story with a lot of other teachers, too, who feel like now they're more than just educators. They're ambassadors to college for these families who sometimes have no understanding of the system. The school also offers college-counseling tutors because even paperwork can be new and unfamiliar. Principal Hicks.
HICKS: One thing we've run into here is social security numbers and how old they are and that type of thing.
MCINERNY: When she graduates high school next year, Na Da Laing will be the first in her family to have career options. Her parents started labor jobs back in Myanmar before reaching eighth grade. After graduation, her plan is to attend Indiana Purdue University at Fort Wayne and work part-time to support her parents. As for academics...
LAING: Yeah, I want to major in education and communication Bachelor's degree.
MCINERNY: Do you want to be a teacher?
MCINERNY: For NPR News, I'm Claire McInerny.
(SOUNDBITE OF BABYSLEEPDREAMS SONG, "SOOTHING RIDE")
SIMON: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.