Stella M. Chávez

The first day of school is a week and a half away, and 20 new students who just arrived from China are already settling in at International Leadership of Texas. Each kid will be assigned a student mentor at the Garland charter school. One of those mentors is a member of KERA’s Class of ’17 project.

The KERA radio story

Arron Cao is 17 and arrived a few days ago from Shanghai. It’s her first time in the U.S. And, the first time away from her parents. Her goal while she studies in Texas?

“To be more independent,” Cao said while hanging out in her apartment complex’s common living area.

Right now though, she’s a little bit anxious about the first day of school.

“I’m nervous that I’m must listen to teacher that speak English,” Cao said. “I’m afraid I can’t understand all of her words, but I think it’s my challenge to get it.”

Arron is one of 20 Chinese students living in the newly-built on-campus complex near Arapaho and Shiloh roads in Garland. A new high school building has been under construction in the same location. Each three-bedroom apartment houses six students with bunk beds and a shared living area and kitchen. They’ll eat breakfast and lunch at the school with their classmates. For dinner though, there’s a special treat.

“We cater in from a local Chinese restaurant, so the thought is to have the kids have a home-cooked, healthy meal every night, so to stave off the home sickness because food is very important,” said Carrie Hutchinson of IL Texas.

The public charter school opened last year and has campuses in Arlington and Keller. The Chinese students are from different sister schools in Northern China. They’ll live on the Garland campus where more than 500 students are enrolled for the fall. Hutchinson said American and Chinese kids attending school together will have lasting repercussions.

“Us older adults, we have our set prejudices and we have our set way of thinking, but in order for these young adults to able to experience different cultures and different friendships and relationships at a younger age, it would just open so many different possibilities for them in the future,” she said.

Some of the school’s current students have been assigned to their Chinese peers to help them make the transition to their new school and home. One of them is Class of ’17 student Alex Gutierrez.

“I chose to be a student mentor because I want that student to feel comfortable with me and I want that student to know that they can ask me anything,” Alex said.

Alex is going into the 10th grade and says she plans to help her Chinese partner with advice, finding a classroom, homework and translating. All the kids at IL Texas are required to study English, Spanish and Chinese. But Alex expects to get more out of this deal than just language help.

“I think I will learn from them many things,” she said. “Their culture, traditions and maybe a little bit about their life.”

One of the Chinese 10th graders, Sam Wang, just met his student mentor. He says they get along, but they also have some differences.

“That’s a very very cool boy, but he likes soccer, not like me like basketball,” Sam said.

When it’s suggested that perhaps he can teach his mentor basketball and his mentor can teach him soccer, he pauses then smiles and nods his head.

“Yeah, that’s great,” Sam said.

They’ll have plenty of time to learn from each other — both Sam and Arron say they hope to stay all the way through high school graduation.