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At Sullivan High School, where hijabs are as common as high-tops, a new mission has meant a second chance—both for the Rogers Park school and its swelling ranks of immigrant students.

Sullivan High School’s new mission has meant a second chance — both for the school and its swelling ranks of immigrant students.

By Elly Fishman
Photos and video by Alyssa Schukar

Sarah Quintenz is running late. She is due in the front office for a new student enrollment, but first she needs to find someone who speaks Arabic. Second period has just ended, so the teacher scans the crowded hallway outside her first-floor classroom. Finally, she spots a Syrian-born student down the corridor. She shouts to him, telling him to follow her to the office.

When they get there, a small crowd has already gathered. At the center stands 14-year-old Mohammad Naser. Quintenz doesn’t know the particulars of his story, just that he and his family fled Iraq. They have been in the United States for all of three weeks. He is flanked by an older brother and a 4-year-old sister, who can’t stop giggling. A representative of the refugee resettlement agency Heartland Alliance accompanies them.

“Hi. How are you?” Quintenz asks. Mohammad smiles, bewildered. Quintenz plows ahead: “Are you nervous? Scared?”

The Syrian student begins to translate, but Quintenz cuts him off: “I need to know if he speaks any English.”

It only takes a few seconds to assess that Mohammad doesn’t. “He’s 1A,” Quintenz proclaims to the school counselor standing nearby.

The conversation continues, Quintenz relying on the Syrian student and Daniel Rizk, an AmeriCorps tutor conversant in Arabic, to translate. “Tell him it’s really important that he get here right at 8 a.m.,” Quintenz says. “Actually, tell him to get here at 7:50.”

The next several minutes are spent showing Mohammad his two uniforms—a T-shirt and a polo with the school’s logo—the Wi-Fi password, and his schedule. Something makes Mohammad and the Syrian boy laugh. “See? They’re already friends,” Quintenz says to no one in particular. She then asks if Mohammad has a ride to school tomorrow. “We need to make sure he has a way here because we’re filled up on students getting lost on their first day.”

Quintenz says her goodbyes, and just as she’s leaving, Mohammad turns to Rizk and asks him a question in Arabic. Rizk points to the insignia on the tile floor. “Sullivan,” he answers in English. “This is Sullivan High School.”

 
Sarah Quintenz (left) heads up Sullivan’s English language learner program. Her classes are filled with refugees and other recent immigrants from around the world.
 

If Sullivan High School had a motto, it would be “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Its immigrant population now numbers close to 300—45 percent of the school’s 641 students—and many are refugees new to this country. This academic year alone, the Rogers Park school has welcomed a staggering 89 refugees—nearly three times as many as last year and far more than at any other high school in the city. The recent surge, fueled in part by an influx of Syrians, has turned the school into a global melting pot, with 38 countries and more than 35 languages represented. The third most common language, after English and Spanish, spoken at Sullivan? Swahili.

How Sullivan got to this point is a fascinating story of a school that not long ago was struggling for survival. During what’s been called the worst refugee crisis ever, with nearly 50 million children across the globe fleeing violence or other threats, Sullivan has reinvented itself by addressing a critical question: How do you give these kids a second chance?

Sullivan has a long history of welcoming immigrants. When the school, a handsome red brick building plopped in the middle of a diverse residential neighborhood on the North Side, opened in 1923, droves of new Irish and German students showed up. And for a while, Sullivan was an academic success: In the ’80s and ’90s, it earned an international reputation for its progressivism under Robert Brazil, a beloved principal who championed the Paideia method, a seminar-style approach to teaching inspired by ancient Greek debates. But after Brazil retired in 1993, Sullivan began to decline.

By the time Chad Adams stepped in as principal in 2013, the school had been on academic probation for eight years running, its four-year graduation rate hovered at a woeful 54 percent, classrooms were barely half full, and violent incidents were common (in 2012, several staff members were assaulted during an altercation between rival gangs). “It was a place you wouldn’t want to send your kids,” says Adams, 40, who had previously been the vice principal at Harper High School in Englewood. (Fans of NPR’s This American Life may remember him from a Peabody Award–winning episode on that school.) “There was lots of talk that the school would either be turned around or shut down.”

When Adams first walked through the doors of Sullivan that July, he ran into a group of students participating in a summer program for refugees. “I had never really met kids from all over the world before,” he says. “I had never worked in such a diverse school. You get to know these kids and you see that they have an appreciation for a free education that sometimes Americans take for granted. It was really profound to me.”

He filed that experience away and spent his first year observing how the school operated. He noticed a large number of older kids who were regular no-shows. So at the end of his first year, he pushed them out, moving them to alternative schools and GED programs. “What’s your motivation to come to school as an 18-year-old with three credits? Your motivation is to hang out and mess around.”

Since Chicago Public Schools had already allocated funds based on projected enrollment, Adams now had some extra cash to play with. He decided to pour it into the school’s English language learner program, designed for refugees and other immigrants who speak little or no English. In essence, he was creating a new mission for the school.

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One of his big moves was putting Quintenz in charge of the program. “I saw how passionate Sarah was about the kids,” says Adams. “She’s just a great teacher.” The new team adopted what’s known as a “cohort” model: ELL students would travel together throughout the day, not just to English but to all core classes, where they would get language support. The school made sure to get the word out to resettlement organizations that Sullivan was turning a corner. “The refugee agencies didn’t really feel comfortable sending their kids anywhere,” Adams says. “We needed to be that place for them.”

It’s no coincidence that as Sullivan has established itself as the go-to school for refugees in the last couple of years, its academic standing has also risen. It has gone from a Level 3 school (the lowest in CPS’s ranking system) to a 2-plus and is on track, Adams says, to reach Level 1 by this time next year.

Still, keeping up with shifts in refugee populations presents a constant challenge for Adams and his staff. New foreign conflicts create new crops of students. What worked for a heavily Bhutanese population (there were some 90 such students in the school when Adams took over) may not work with Syrian kids. “We’re struggling a little bit in the sense that I don’t know exactly how to manage this, but when you see a number like that going up, you know you have to do something,” says Adams. “There is no other place in the world that is doing what we are doing. I mean, this is like what America might be in 50 years.”

“I just want my kids to feel like they are a part of this country. This is their country now.” —Sarah Quintenz, teacher

 

As students trickle in just before 12:30 p.m., Sarah Quintenz’s classroom is a cacophony of languages—Arabic, French, Rohingya, Swahili, Urdu. Nearly every inch of wall is covered in flags, posters, or photos of students. Plastic globes hang from the lights, and pictures of Quintenz’s young son dot the walls, each one accompanied with a direction, such as “Clean up after yourself, your mother doesn’t work here!” or “Don’t be afraid to swim in the deep end.”

“Good afternoon. How are you?” Quintenz says to the class, her husky voice booming over the chatter.

“Fine, thank you. How are you?” her students reply in unison.

This is Quintenz’s English 2B class, which means that the 30 students, all foreign-born, have a competent level of English. Many of them are in their second year at the school. (That’s in contrast to the 1A class, for those, like Mohammad, who speak no English. It’s called the “silent class” because pictures rather than words are used as the primary means of communication.)

Quintenz’s class looks like a junior United Nations. The front row is occupied by a quartet of girls from Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan, wearing hijabs, Muslim headscarfs. Today something has them laughing. “Hey, Syria,” Quintenz snaps, using shorthand to address the four, “you’re being rude.”

In the back sit a group of boys from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, and Rwanda. Among the five of them, they speak Swahili, Kinyarwanda, French, and Kirundi, and most conversations—soccer is a favorite topic—move seamlessly from one language to another.

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Across the room, beneath the windows, a cluster of Malaysian, Burmese, and Congolese boys hover over their phones, playing video pool. During lunch, they often pile onto the couch in Quintenz’s room, stacking themselves like pancakes. “You don’t see American teenage boys hang off each other like that,” notes Quintenz.

One student, a fully bearded Syrian refugee who looks more like a teacher, sits alone at a computer, away from his classmates. “He’s 21 and does not want to be here,” Quintenz says. “But there’s really nothing we can do if he doesn’t have his school credits from Syria.”

Quintenz is seeing more and more older students. Some spent the last few years in a refugee camp and so have been out of school; others fled their countries without time to gather their documents. No matter the reason, if they don’t have credits, the school must start such students as freshmen. “It sucks,” Quintenz says, “but I really don’t have any other choice.”

Older, however, doesn’t necessarily mean more mature. Quintenz likes to joke that when it comes to a basic understanding of American social mores, her students have more in common with kindergartners. “I spend a lot of time just talking about manners,” she says. She teaches lessons on eye contact, speaking with adults, and what questions are inappropriate to ask (How much do you weigh? How much money do you make?). “I want my students to be able to leave my room being able to talk to anyone.”

Encouraging students to share their personal stories and cultures is at the heart of nearly every one of Quintenz’s lessons. She might adjust an ELL reading assignment about a laundromat, for example, by asking students to detail how they cleaned their clothes in their home countries. “It’s more important that my students feel safe, happy, and confident than it is for them to learn specific grammar structures. I just want my kids to feel like they are a part of this country. This is their country now.”

She knows the difficulty of having to start over. She moved a lot growing up—her parents were in the military (her mom was a Navy combat medic and her father served as a Marine before winding up a colonel in the Illinois Air National Guard)—and it wasn’t until high school, when her family landed in Rogers Park, that she finally felt settled. “We say that we are from Chicago because this is where we threw away our stereo boxes,” she says.

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The 37-year-old Quintenz brings up her family a lot in the classroom, telling stories about navigating shared custody of her 6-year-old son and quipping about an older brother, whom she says lives “out of a smaller and smaller box.” She can be blunt, sarcastic, and darkly humorous. (“The queen is talking!” is one of her favorite refrains when she can’t get the class’s attention.) And she refuses to simplify lessons or sugarcoat feedback. She seems to operate at a single frenetic speed, keyed up by chocolate (she keeps a stash behind her desk), cigarettes, and caffeine. “No matter how many Diet Cokes you think I’ve had,” she says, “multiply that number by four.”

She spends as much time wrangling students as teaching them. Her classroom can be pure chaos—kids wandering around the room, playing music on their phones, using Google Translate to talk to each other, bursting out in laughter. But Quintenz has cultivated a loose atmosphere on purpose, trying to break down the wall between teacher and student. Some of these kids have been in schools where they were beaten if they gave the wrong answer. Others have been through worse. Once you hear their stories, you start to understand why Quintenz handles her class the way she does.

 

All Roads Lead to Room 106

In Sarah Quintenz’s English 2B class, all 30 students are foreign-born, and many took multiple stops on their way to Sullivan High School. Hover over or tap the lines below to follow seven students’ journeys.Choose your student in the dropdown menu below to follow their journey.

Samira Ahmed: Born in Somalia, moved to Kenya then U.S.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 


 

One afternoon, at my request, Quintenz has her students fill out questionnaires that ask for details of their journeys to America. (The assignment doubles as a lesson on grammar and punctuation.) A Rohingya boy explains that as members of a persecuted Muslim minority, he and his family fled Myanmar for Bangladesh, then Malaysia, after his grandfather and uncle were killed. Another student outlines eight countries—Angola, Malawi, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe, among them—that her family has lived in since leaving Rwanda. One girl, who has been in the United States for only a few months, says that she misses the smell of jasmine in her native Syria but not the sound of bombs. Trauma is part of the cultural fabric in room 106.

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network reports that as much as 75 percent of refugee youth experience some level of posttraumatic stress disorder. That’s why Chad Adams had every ELL teacher go through two trauma trainings, one conducted by Lurie Children’s Hospital and the other by Sullivan’s former social worker, who also ran weekly discussion circles for students to share what they had been through. For Quintenz, helping students heal comes down to trust: “Kids are only going to talk to you if you build those relationships and they feel comfortable with you.”

One student Quintenz has grown particularly close to is 20-year-old Hajar Assaf. A few years ago, she and her middle-class family were living in a plush apartment in the Syrian city of Homs. After civil war broke out in 2011, it didn’t take long for the conflict to reach Homs, and when it did, Hajar’s life quickly imploded.

Late that spring, 40 Syrian soldiers broke into her family’s apartment, the butts of their guns smashing through the plaster walls. Hajar, who was 15 at the time, wasn’t home, but her mother and younger brother were. The soldiers told them to leave. When her mom returned to the apartment a few weeks later, she found it destroyed. The walls were covered in graffiti, and everything of value—clothes, TV sets, jewelry—had been pilfered. Even the light fixtures had been pulled from the walls. To this day, Hajar’s little brother, now 10, has nightmares and often crawls into bed with his mother, falling asleep with his hand in hers.

Hajar and her family spent the next several years bouncing from one location to another—from a smaller city in Syria to Lebanon and eventually to Egypt. “It’s like we had no place,” says Hajar. “It felt like there was no future.” But last year, after two years in Egypt, the United Nations’ refugee agency contacted her family, asking if they’d like to resettle in Chicago. They eagerly accepted: Though they knew no one here, it was the equivalent of hitting the refugee lottery.

Still, the transition has not been easy. “The home they put us in was so dirty, and there were mice and cockroaches,” says Hajar, who later found the family a better apartment. “I couldn’t understand anything the social worker was saying to me.”

“I just want to have a normal life, a better life,” says Hajar Assaf (middle), here with two fellow Syrian refugees.

Hajar was also in for a big shock: Though she attended high school in Egypt, she hadn’t taken certain courses required for an American diploma. Which is how she ended up at Sullivan. She is on schedule to graduate in June and plans to attend Truman College.

Because her parents don’t speak English, it falls on Hajar and one of her brothers to support the family. Almost every day after school Hajar heads straight to Devon Market, where she works as a cashier. Hardly a day goes by without a customer asking about her hijab. “Usually they are nice,” she says, “mostly just curious.” But a recent encounter was much more menacing: A customer pantomimed throwing a bomb while shouting “Allahu akbar!” in her direction. That night, Hajar walked the two miles home in tears. “Sometimes I feel like America is not my place. I would have stayed in my country if I could. I just want to have a normal life, a better life.”

 

The faded blue-and-white-striped couch in the corner of Quintenz’s classroom is almost never empty. At any given point during the day, students gather on it to finish homework, eat lunch, play games on their phones, or simply sit side by side in silence seeking respite from the noise outside. For them, the classroom is a haven. Even students who have advanced out of the class still come here, relaying the events of their day to Quintenz or helping her organize her papers. She is a den mother as much as a teacher.

Her relationship with her students extends beyond the classroom. She’ll sometimes take home their uniforms to wash, no questions asked. She helps their families get on ComEd payment plans when they can no longer afford to keep the lights on. And sometimes she gives them rides when they find themselves stranded without a car or money for the bus. It was Quintenz whom Hajar turned to, in tears, when she was denied a driver’s permit at the DMV. (At the time, applications using Syrian documents required a longer vetting period.) Quintenz consoled her by taking her to Mariano’s, because, she says, “in America, we eat our feelings.”

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Though Quintenz prides herself on her close ties with her students (“They’re my minions,” she jokes), there are some cultural gulfs she can’t bridge. Last year, she had a 15-year-old freshman from Myanmar who was “very bubbly and very happy and driven,” Quintenz recalls, but “over the course of the year, it was like Reviving Ophelia as I watched her just slowly start to decline and become introverted.” After months of this, Quintenz finally asked the student what was wrong. “She just threw her arms around me and hung off my shoulders and said, ‘My parents are making me get married.’ ”

The student showed up to school only a few more times before the end of the year. Now she’s pregnant and married to a 24-year-old who lives with his father. “I saw pictures from her wedding and she looked miserable,” says Quintenz. “It was totally heartbreaking.”

One of the things Quintenz quickly realized when she took over Sullivan’s ELL program was that she needed to establish better communication with the five major resettlement agencies operating in the area. She made a point of reaching out to the representatives at each of those agencies who oversee the placement of students. “Before, we weren’t working in tandem; we weren’t partners in helping these kids. I wanted to know who my people were so I could let them know what’s going on at Sullivan or find out what’s going on at home with kids.”

Sullivan by the Numbers

45%

Foreign-born students

38

Countries represented

89

Refugees enrolled this academic year

40%

Students still learning English

35+

Languages spoken

While Quintenz and Matthew Fasana, the assistant principal, have taken on the relationship-building role, the financial realities of maintaining the ELL program fall on Adams. Every year, CPS’s Office of Language and Cultural Education gives additional dollars to schools based on the number of their ELL students. Sullivan received about $60,000 of such funds at the start of this academic year, Adams estimates. The problem is that new refugee students continue to enroll at Sullivan on a near-weekly basis—and the school receives no additional money for them.

Cuts in the CPS budget haven’t helped either. Last year, Adams had to lay off two ELL-certified teachers because he simply could no longer afford them. The downsizing left him with no choice but to partially collapse the cohort model. He also had to put non-ELL teachers—including substitute teachers—in charge of ELL classes. “It’s really hard for teachers to understand how an ELL classroom works if they don’t have the training,” says Adams. “In a certain sense, it’s like taking an English teacher and making them teach math.”

But Adams has one big reason to remain hopeful: Earlier this year, he says, Sullivan was selected by CPS to become Chicago’s first newcomer center, a designation given to schools that offer robust programming for refugee and other immigrant students. (An English proficiency program in Arlington Heights, attended by mostly Central and South American students, is the only other one in the state.) The selection means CPS will dole out a lump sum of federal funding to Sullivan. “We’re looking at something like $300,000,” says Adams, who plans to use the money to hire additional ELL teachers and rebuild the cohort model. “That money will make a big difference.”

But without an Illinois budget (all federal education dollars are funneled through the state), not much progress can be made. If the financing falls apart, Adams says, “I will have to look at some other options”—meaning cuts. “But I really hope it doesn’t come to that.”

 

During her five years as an ELL teacher, Quintenz has had a front-row seat to some meteoric transformations. She has watched Muslims exchange hijabs for braids. She’s seen girls who never wore makeup before suddenly paint their lips bright red and boys who came in with a buttoned-up look start sagging their pants. “They change really quickly,” says Quintenz. “It’s a crazy thing to watch.”

The poster child is Thang Khan Khup, a 17-year-old from Myanmar (sometimes referred to as Burma). In the three years since Khup, as he prefers to be called, arrived in the United States, he has immersed himself in American culture. He’s on the school’s soccer and volleyball teams and plays guitar in a student rock band. His unofficial uniform is a denim jacket, a well-worn T-shirt, and frayed but fitted jeans (he cites Slash of Guns N’ Roses as a style icon), and his main means of transportation to school is a skateboard.

Which is to say he’s like a lot of American kids. Except for a major difference: Seven years ago, he was living in a small village in Myanmar. After the military tried to recruit his dad and older brother as battlefield porters in the country’s civil war, Khup and his family fled south in the middle of the night. It took more than a week of “walking through the jungle at night, like ninjas,” Khup says, their legs covered in leeches, to reach Malaysia, where the family spent four years before coming to Chicago.

Two of Khup’s first friends at Sullivan were also refugees—one from Tanzania and the other from Iraq. Their freshman year, the boys were almost always together, playing video games and talking soccer. “There’s a feeling we share,” Khup says. “We are refugees.”

Now that they are juniors, they spend less time with one another. These days, Khup mostly hangs out with his American friends from band and business class. But no matter how much he embraces this country, Khup says, he will never feel fully American: “I am still Burmese. I just live in America for my safety.”

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Refugee students often find themselves in a strange middle space, trying to balance life as an American teenager and cultural traditions from their homelands. Every day after school, Samira Ahmed, a Somali student, picks up her 8-year-old sister, Intisaar, from a nearby elementary school. And every day, Samira asks her, in Somali, about her day. Sometimes Intisaar replies in Somali, other times in English. “She’s forgetting our language,” says Samira with a sigh. “She’s so American now.”

Samira, who has been in Chicago for a little over two years, lives with her mother, stepfather, and three younger sisters in a sparse three-room basement apartment just a few blocks from Sullivan. The only things in the living room are a bunk bed for Samira and two of her three sisters, a TV, and a smattering of baby toys and clothes. It doesn’t take long to see that Samira is a mother figure to her siblings: She makes sure that Intisaar does her homework and that everyone has had enough to eat.

Lately, Samira’s mother, who was married at 14, has been bugging the 19-year-old about finding a husband. “Every day she’s asking me if I want to get married,” says Samira. “She brings over old men, young men. Every day she’s asking me.” But Samira has no interest in getting married at this stage. Maybe if she were still in Africa, she says, she would feel differently, but now that she is in the United States, she has other plans: “I want to go to college and become a doctor. I want to show my family that I can take care of them and that I am the brain. Only after that will I get married. Life is not about running. I want to go slow.”

Samira Ahmed says her mother is pressuring her to marry. She has other plans: to be a doctor.
 

A few weeks after observing Mohammad enroll at Sullivan, I decide to see how the Iraqi student is faring. When I look for him in English 1A, it takes me a minute to spot him. He’s changed his hairstyle (more gel) and ditched his glasses.

It’s too noisy to talk in the room (ironic for a “silent class”), so we walk to the library and sit at a large table. Daniel Rizk translates again. I ask Mohammad how school has been going. His answer is typical for a 14-year-old: “Good.” The next few questions go a similar way.

Has it been hard?

“No, it’s fine.”

Do you like going to class?

“Class is good. I learn nice things.”

But then my next question captures his attention: What about your life before, in Iraq?

Suddenly a torrent of words comes spilling from him. “My life there, well, I don’t know what to say. It was all bombs and explosions and threats. There wasn’t a future for me.”

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Things took a turn for the worse in 2010, when the market next to Mohammad’s house was bombed. A couple of years later, a neighbor and her son were shot, beheaded, and eviscerated. “They were slaughtered,” Mohammad says, holding his fingers in the shape of a knife and dragging them across his throat and stomach. Not long after that, he says, “a gang went to my dad and said, ‘Either we’ll kill your [older] son or we’ll burn your house down.’ ”

That’s when Mohammad’s father got visas for his family to move to Turkey. He drove them there but had to return to Iraq to take care of other matters. When he got back, he found his house on fire. Mohammad and his family, without his father, spent the next two years in Turkey, waiting for American visas. Finally, in February, the family arrived in Chicago. “I wish my dad was here with me to help me out and be by my side,” Mohammad says. “I hope that the organization can help us get him here.” (Mohammad’s name has been changed in this story because he fears that his participation in it could endanger his father.)

At the end of our conversation, I ask Mohammad again how things have been at Sullivan.

“Fine,” he repeats. But this time he adds something: “Nothing can compare to what I’ve already lived through.”

Nearly an hour has passed since we sat down, and the bell is due to ring any minute. Mohammad looks nervously at his cell phone—he’s worried he’ll be late for the next period. So we say goodbye, and with a sheepish smile, he gathers his jacket and pushes through the double doors of the library. He walks out into the busy hallway, disappearing into the stream of students.

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