How music is helping immigrant students at Oakland International High

For most of the students at Oakland International High, a school for newly arrived immigrant kids, the final bell marks the end of the day. But instead of going home or to an after-school job, Gia Anela Pick Romero makes a beeline to band practice.

“Do you want to sing today?” asked Nick Kanozik, who’d spent the last half-hour assembling instruments, tuning guitars and laying out sheet music on the wooden stage of the school’s cafeteria.

“Yes!” replied Romero, as she headed up the stairs, backpack slung over one shoulder. “And piano.”

In a school where students from across the globe speak a total of 32 languages, this unique program isn’t about understanding the lyrics. It’s about building a community through music.

Over the next few minutes, Ricky Cuadra, an 11th-grader from Nicaragua, sits beside the bright blue drum set. Carlos Roberto Cuz Bol, a 9th-grader from Guatemala, grabs a guitar. And Edwin Corto Tule, an 11th-grader from Mexico, picks up a black bass.

The group is small. But as their Bad Bunny cover begins to take shape, members of the school staff filter into the cafeteria to watch the students play.

Guitarist Carlos Roberto Cuz, second right, laughs during practice in the ARTogether program at Oakland International High School in Oakland, CA on Friday, January 27, 2023. (Don Feria for Bay Area News Group) 

“I moved a lot growing up, and music was always the most stable part of my life,” said Kanozik, who leads the program through the nonprofit ARTogether every Friday afternoon. “Music has the ability to mute the pain from a transition, and to build a community at the same time.”

The high school, which opened in August of 2007, has nearly 400 students from 35 countries, all of whom have resettled in the United States within the past four years. Every one of them is an English language learner. Nearly a quarter are refugees. And the challenges the kids face are daunting.

“There are so many barriers to coming to school,” said Kajal Shahal, the youth program manager at the Bay Area-based nonprofit Refugee & Immigrant Transitions. “So many of them have to work, there’s a lot going on at home, and there are experiences of trauma. Academics, in general, have to be accompanied by other support and activities to keep students engaged in the school system.”

Those barriers increased with the COVID-19 pandemic, Shahal said. Many students left school to go to work — and some haven’t come back. In the 2019-2020 academic year, nearly 400 students attended Oakland International. Last year, that number had shrunk to 274, a 30% decrease in just two years. On top of that, only one-fifth of the school’s students are making progress toward English language proficiency, according to the California Department of Education. During the last academic year, just 56% of the school’s students graduated, compared to 87% across the state.

Chronic absenteeism is also more than double that of the state. With nearly half of students immigrating to the states on their own, principal Tom Felix said that often, they are forced to assume major responsibilities immediately after resettling — something that can take a toll on their mental and social well-being.

“We are constantly trying to think of strategies to keep students who are on the fringe of dropping out to stay in school,” said Madenh Hassan, community schools manager at Oakland International High.

Across the world, one-third of refugees experience post-traumatic stress disorder, a rate almost eight times that of the general population. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, refugee adolescents in the United States are up to 12 times more likely to experience depression than their native-born peers, and studies have shown that depression among refugees and migrants can linger for years.

Leva Zand, the founder of ARTogether, has seen such issues firsthand. At age 23, Zand and her family moved to Sacramento after facing religious persecution in Iran. She and her siblings could speak some English, but for years, Zand watched as her parents withdrew from the world around them. In Iran, they were always hosting guests, feeding friends and family, and opening their doors to their neighborhood. But in America, they felt completely isolated.

Twenty years later, Zand started the nonprofit to help other immigrants tackle loneliness and build community. The program now offers after-school music classes for newcomers at both Oakland International High and Fremont High School, along with art workshops for adult migrants in Oakland.

There are other programs like ARTogether throughout the Bay Area. At Oakland International High and throughout the country, Soccer Without Borders is also helping students integrate into their school environments. A study from Palo Alto University found students who participated in that program were 10 times less likely to miss school than their peers who did not. Oakland International principal Felix said the high school uses the soccer program as a way to bring kids who’ve dropped out back to the classroom.

Gia Romero came to the United States in June of 2022. Before that, she had lived in Nicaragua, her country of birth, and then in Honduras, where her family moved after it became too dangerous for Romero and her siblings to go to school. In Nicaragua, she was pulled out of school at the beginning of seventh grade.

At first, she said she was terrified to sing on the cafeteria stage.

“I always sing in my house, but only in front of my mom,” said Romero, who at band practice ended up taking the mic in both Spanish (Luis Fonsi’s Despacito) and English (Lewis Capaldi’s Someone You Loved). “It was fun, and (felt) good, to sing with everyone.”

Ricky Cuadra, who moved to Oakland from Nicaragua on his own, said that playing the drums has served as a distraction when he’s missing his friends, family and parents back at home. Today, he lives with his 21-year-old sister in an Oakland apartment.

Junior Ricky Cuadra, left, watches for changes during practice in the ARTogether program at Oakland International High School in Oakland, CA on Friday, January 27, 2023. The afterschool program is designed to provide students?'99% of which do not speak English?'who have come from other countries fleeing conflict, disaster, and other forms of trauma. (Don Feria for Bay Area News Group)
Junior Ricky Cuadra, left, watches for changes during practice in the ARTogether program at Oakland International High School in Oakland, CA on Friday, January 27, 2023. (Don Feria for Bay Area News Group) 

“It’s about creating a space where people of different backgrounds can come together and participate in a joined activity,” said Zand. “They don’t feel they are isolated, because they are creating something together.”

When a student named Angel stopped showing up for music class, Kanozik was worried: He knew Angel had left Guatemala on his own, and that his support system was both weak and limited. After countless WhatsApp messages, Kanozik finally convinced Angel to meet up at a guitar shop. Through ARTogether, he helped Angel get a guitar and then signed him up for private lessons. Over time, Angel got back into music — and over time, he came back to school.

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