Education is the ticket to achieving the American Dream for Bhutanese refugees in Akron


Story By Tom Crain

“In the beginning,  I was really freaked out,” confesses ninth grader Sabbitri about her first couple months transferring mid-year from a Nepali refugee camp school to Akron’s North High School.  “I couldn’t get the combination on my locker to work. The other high school girls had beautiful makeup and clothes and wild hairstyles in all different colors. They were always laughing and texting each other. They were so much happier and prettier than I was.”

The transition from Nepal’s refugee camp schools to America’s public schools is a challenge for most Bhutanese students like Sabbitri.  The Nepali government places a strong emphasis on its monastic-style of teaching where its Bhutanese refugees go to school, providing nine years of free education for them. Lessons are taught in British English and Nepali.

BhutaneserefugeesschoolcampPhoto by Erin Collins,
Bhutanese refugees’ educational experience

Classrooms are typically 50-60 students to a class and held in dank and constricting bamboo bullpens with no electricity, a single chalkboard and dirt floors swept by the students daily. From 10-12th grade, many refugee students who do well on their final graduation exams go on to boarding schools outside the camps in Nepal or in the neighboring country of India paid for by their families.

“The boys were so tall and always wrestling and running everywhere,” adds Sabbitri about her early transfer days to North High. “I know now that’s pretty normal for American high schools, but I was used to a really strict and orderly school where students never made a peep unless asked to speak, always lined up to enter or leave a classroom and stood up together whenever a teacher walked in or out of a classroom. We all looked the same in our blue uniforms and dark hair up in braids.”

NorthHSNorth High School Photo from


More than 80 percent of ESL (English as a second language) students enrolled in Akron Public Schools are in the North Hill cluster schools. Currently, there are nearly 1500 ESL students attending Akron Public School (APS). In addition to Bhutan, APS’ top five countries of origin include; Thailand, Mexico, Myanmar (Burma) and Iraq. This year, APS had a two percent increase in its ESL population, currently employing 28 ESL-certified teachers and 13 full- and 33 part-time ESL tutors.

APS students who speak a language other than English are assessed to determine if they qualify for ESL services. “We look at a couple of factors such as students’ current ages, last grades completed, transcripts, credits completed, etc. when placing them into a specific grade,” explains Loi Dang-Nguyen, Ph.D. ESL, who coordinates the APS ESL program.  Once placed, ESL students move progressively through the grades in a manner similar to what non-ESL students follow. ESL students take a variety of classes with other students, but some core classes, like language arts, math and social studies, are set up exclusively for ESL students.

Loi Dang-Nguyen Loi Dang-Nguyen


Rangupati is older than other students in the 10th grade, where he was placed. At age 19, his understanding of the American English language has made it more difficult because he learned the British-style of English, in his previous school.

“It really sucks that I wasn’t trained well enough in English or other class subjects in my Nepali camp school to instantly jump into American classes and succeed right away,” says Rangupati. “We were totally unprepared for our new life in America.”

Next week we will delve further into Ohio’s most diverse public school and the challenges these students face in the resettlement process.

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