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Last year, Ritenour School District administrators opened a one-classroom school for their fastest-growing student population: immigrants.

Some of these students fled to this country from broken families or neighborhoods terrorized by gangs and threatened by lawlessness, places where opportunities were few and far between. Many came on their own, or with siblings who were children like themselves, on buses or trains across the Mexican border.

“There is no food, there is no work. Everything is hard there,” Habtu Mersha, 18, said of his home country, Ethiopia. He now hopes to attend college and become an engineer. “This is a better life.”

Yibeli Iris Lopez, a 20-year-old senior at Ritenour High School, said she came from Honduras with her sister on a bus across Mexico.

“I’ve seen many things, like people dying,” said Lopez, who was detained for a month in Texas, living off only an apple and milk each day. “Here, I feel more protected. I don’t feel scared when I go out of my house. I can come to the school. I can have certainty that nothing bad will happen to me.”

28 languages

The Ritenour district, in north St. Louis County just south of Lambert-St. Louis International Airport, has about 6,400 students. About 800 of them are English language learners who collectively speak 28 languages.

Julie Hahn, assistant superintendent for data, intervention and student support, said the number of English language learners has especially spiked in the past five years.

Ritenour is unusual in the St. Louis region in that it has no majority race. Only Pattonville, a neighboring school district, also shares that distinction.

In 2013, black enrollment surpassed white enrollment for the first time in Ritenour’s history. Meanwhile, Hispanic enrollment ballooned from well under 1 percent in the early 1990s to 17 percent today. Similar changes happened in the Pattonville district, where 48 percent of students are white, down from 87 percent two decades ago, with students coming from 67 countries and speaking 43 languages.

A lot of these changes can be traced to the airport and to housing patterns.

When the airport added an extra runway at the turn of the century, the area lost 2,000 homes, which subtracted a lot of middle-class white families and left mostly low-income and rental properties, said Mike Fulton, Pattonville’s superintendent. Immigrant families helped fill the void, attracted to the low cost of living and proximity to the airport.

Several of these immigrant students lack legal resident status and are in the process of applying for refugee or asylum status. The district does not keep track of such information on students, since they only have to be living in the district to enroll in public school, said Michelle Mueller, district spokeswoman.

“If they are residents in the district, they’re our students,” Mueller said.

As Hispanic families settled there, more wanted to join them. It’s slowly changed the landscape of the town: dining choices currently include La Tejana Taqueria, Las Palmas, El Mexiquense, Chimi’s and Taqueria Durango.

Like other districts in West and North County, Ritenour has added English-as-a-second-language teachers. Like Parkway, Rockwood and Pattonville, Ritenour has started holding more school “international nights,” where students present food and culture from different countries. Ritenour also offers a free adult ESL program that’s open to the public.

Ritenour started the International Welcome Center school last year because staff saw that ESL students were dropping out, missing school and struggling to fit in, Hahn said.

In addition to learning a foreign language, students like Mersha were learning how to act in an American classroom and follow rules such as presenting a school ID at lunchtime, or standing in a cafeteria line.

“I didn’t have friends because of English,” Mersha said. “Nobody explained (it to) me.”

This center is meant to provide up to a two-year transition for students into Ritenour High or one of Ritenour’s middle schools. The length of the transition varies depending on a student’s progress. Here, they mostly learn English, but also some math.

During a typical day at the International Welcome Center, jokes, laughter and Spanish flow freely among the students. Nobody sits alone at lunch.

Having a smaller school of just a couple of classrooms helps her fellow international classmates, Lopez said.

“When I came to Ritenour High School, it was terrible because I didn’t know anything,” said Lopez, who transitioned out of the International Welcome Center last year. “But now I feel good, because I’m learning.”

The center has already tripled in size since last year, serving about 60 middle- and high-school students in the program this academic year.

New opportunity

Here, students said, they have opportunities that people could not realistically imagine back in their home countries.

But there are still things they miss from home. Mersha remembers playing soccer with his friends. One student misses her father’s jokes, whilefor another, it is the sight of his mother’s smile.

The students have told the center’s three teachers that they want to become teachers themselves, doctors or immigration lawyers “to help people just like them,” said Karina Arango, a teaching assistant at the center.

The teachers have gone with their students to the optometrist to translate for them to get eyeglasses. They help make doctor appointments for them and counsel them.

“Sometimes we’re a therapist, sometimes a teacher,” said Deepa Jaswal, one of the teachers.

The teachers call their students brave for taking the risk to learn. Even though memories of death live in their minds, even though they leave school to homes that are missing mothers and fathers, they participate in class and laugh often.

“We see them as victims. But they have a lot of strength,” Arango said. “They don’t see themselves as victims. They see the opportunity.”