Education is the ticket to achieving the American Dream for Bhutanese refugees in Akron Part 2



Story by Tom Crain


David James, Superintendent of Akron Public Schools (APS) says that several of Akron’s schools have been undergoing significant change due to the influx of refugees. “Little did any of us know the U.S. foreign policy decision made nine years ago would bring into our schools a story that is truly inspirational in an American way,” he says. “And now, with so many articles and broadcasts coming out of our refugee schools, much of America is aware.”

North High School (NHS) was waning in attendance for years and was in danger of closing altogether before refugee resettlement kicked in. Now, NHS has become known as Ohio’s most diverse public school.

“The challenges are many for APS in keeping up with the demands of so many English as a Second Language (ESL) students,” says James. “In fact, we are scrambling daily to locate more and more teachers who can help us with this mission to provide an enriching experience and a strong education for young people who are eager to learn, hungry for knowledge and grateful for the experience.”


Loi Dang-NguyenLoi Dang-Nguyen

But, according to Dang-Nguyen, it’s not difficult to fill these positions because APS works so closely with community partners to find a pool of candidates when vacant spots become available.

“We partner with many wonderful organizations that support our families and students in many different capacities, such as reading and tutoring; as well as everyday resources, such as school supplies, clothing and individual needs,” says Dang-Nguyen. Partner organizations include local churches, Akron Reads, International Institute of Akron, Asian Services in Action, Akron Summit County Public Libraries, Summit Education Initiative, Akron Community Foundation, Akron Health Department and Love Akron.

“In Akron, the teachers are so nice to us and learning is actually fun,” says Rangupati. “You can get graded on creative thinking and work in teams. You can talk to the teachers and work out deals with them if you failed a test or didn’t do your homework. They never hit you.”

girlsinbcampschoolPhoto by Erin Collins,
Bhutanese refugees’ educational experience

In Nepal, Rangupati recalls it was all rote memorization, taking page after page of boring notes and writing up multiple choice tests almost daily. “If you ever lipped off to a teacher, lost your homework or nodded off in class, you would get whacked, struck or switched so bad that sometimes you bled or bruised up for a week.”

It’s not uncommon for Nepali school teachers to carry out corporal punishment on their students with their parent’s full permission to keep order in the classroom and full control of students. Typical punishments include hitting students’ heads against walls, switching their faces with wet nettles, forcing bare kneeling on piles of gravel, caning backsides and striking the palm side of hands with bamboo sticks.

In contrast, any Akron refugee students requiring discipline no longer fear for their lives.  “Whenever there are discipline issues with our refugee students, we utilize the services of our interpreters who help communicate with our families in their language,” says Dang‐Nguyen,  “The district looks toward a presentation, intervention and continuation model to correct behaviors and improve academic outcomes for all students.”

“I never got bullied at North, but for some reason, I would always get in somebody’s way and get knocked down,” says Dorji, about his first month in high school after spending all 15 years in a camp where he was born.  “Everybody knew I was a wimp.  That’s why I took up wrestling for a sport and not soccer like most of my buddies did.” The talented and diverse top-ranked North High soccer team was featured recently in a series of broadcasts and articles on National Public Radio.

Dorji calls himself a Nepali unlike his parents who call themselves Bhutanese.  Mainly because, unlike his parents, he never lived or has ever seen his home country of Bhutan.

“Wrestling helped me feel more in control of myself,” explains Dorji. “It was easier to make friends when you joined a sport. I finally gained some weight and felt more secure about myself and felt like I belonged.” Dorji is now officially enrolled in the U.S. military where he will join the army after graduation.

Despite best efforts, a number of APS ESL students still struggle to pass classes and go on to college even though APS doesn’t capture graduation and college attendance data specific to ESLs.


BSBishnu Subba

Bishnu Subba, Akron’s Bhutanese Community Association director, says too many of his communities youth leaving high school struggle to find work outside of low-paying jobs as cashiers, dishwashers or assemblers, but more and more are working hard to continue on to college.

“I don’t know where I’m going to college or if I’m even eligible,” says Sabbitri. She hasn’t yet received her graduation test scores. “But I’m planning to go to college at some point.”  For now, she is looking at getting special training to become a beautician where she can join her mom, aunts and cousins who work at a local salon.

Next week we will look further into education beyond K-12.

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