Cleveland's Thomas Jefferson International school sees a growth in enrollment amid refugee crisis

Posted at 3:19 PM, Mar 16, 2017
and last updated 2017-03-17 12:09:41-04

Cleveland is a melting pot for immigrants, refugees, and ethnic groups. Pockets of rich, diverse neighborhoods have shared the city since the 18th Century.

In recent years, the number of refugees arriving in Cleveland has steadily increased. Those coming to Cleveland are often children who have been out of school for years due to war and relocation. When they arrive in Cleveland, many have little to no English language skills and are behind academically.

"There were not others like me"

Roba Mohammed's journey from Iraq wasn't easy. In 2004, she left Iraq with her family due to the ongoing war plaguing their city of Baghdad. She lived in Damascus, Syria, for ten years before leaving for Iraq again due to the Syrian war. 

"When I first came here [Cleveland] in 2015, I was at Lakewood High School," Mohammed said. "I understood little English, but couldn't speak it enough to talk to anyone or learn. There were not others like me. I'm shy. Here, everyone is different with different cultures so it's easier to learn and make mistakes."

Mohammed is not alone. Refugees coming to America have many challenges they carry on their back. Education is one of the environments they are thrown into when they arrive.

RELATED: Northeast Ohio newcomers: Where do immigrants living in Cleveland have their roots?

The Thomas Jefferson International Newcomers Academy is assisting incoming immigrants and refugees to transition to life in the United States, first starting with education.

Thomas Jefferson is one of the only schools in the country offering education to all grades from Kindergarten through 12th grade, allowing families to stick together in the same school.

Marisol Burgos, the principal of the school, has seen student enrollment increase over the years, but particularly in this school year alone. Since the school was established seven years ago, enrollment has risen from 118 students to 919 students.

"Last year, we were waiting for our Syrian students to come. Between 60 to 100 families arrived from the beginning of the school year until now," She said. "We went from having 596 students in August 2016 to  currently 919 students."

Diversity is obvious

Walking through the school, the hallways are filled students conversing in their native language. With 23 languages spoken throughout the school, the school's diversity is obvious. Most students who come to the school come with little to no English.  All the teachers are accredited with the TESOL endorsement (teaching English as a second language.) 

There are 14 bilingual paired professionals who visit the classrooms on a regular basis to ensure students are comprehending the lessons. There are some languages that are not represented such as Farsi.

Key facts about the school:

  • 412 Spanish speaking students
  • 175 Arabic speaking students
  • 125 Swahili speaking students
  • 48% of students are refugees
  • 52% of students are immigrants or of Puerto Rican origin.
A family approach
Burgos explains how language isn't the only challenge faced by the teachers when working with a diverse student body. She explains how the school has to also keep in mind the students' cultural practices and customs, while also teaching children and parents the rules and customs of education in the United States.
"We had a case in the past where a Nepali family was at the bottom caste in their country and they didn't even want us saying their last name. We had to tell them that here in America everyone is equal. In response to that, we created clubs based off of the students' national origin. There is an Arab club, an African club, and so on," Burgos said.
New waves, new challenges
The biggest challenge for Thomas Jefferson International Academy, according to Burgos, is in relation to budget, funding, and school staffing.
"We can never predict how many kids will come," she said. "They transfer to our school at any time during the school year. I can't cap the school's enrollment because I don't know when they {students] will arrive. The school district staffs me based on the number of students in the beginning of the year. As the year continues and a number of students coming in increases, I have to find long-term subs to fill in the gap."
Every year, there is a new wave of incoming students. The school's policy allows students to stay at the school for one to two years maximum before they are transferred to another school. 
High school students are the only exception to the rule. They can finish out their four years here. The district felt it would decrease dropout rates among high school students
"This is just a beginning," Burgos said. "A bridge to another bilingual school in Cleveland. We just need to give them the basics so they can succeed in another school."
Kaylyn Hlavaty covers news that's all about the pride we share in Cleveland. Have a story tip or idea? Drop her a line at or connect on Twitter: @kaylynhlavaty.