NEW YORK – Boarding school in Katmandu and public school in New York City are thousands of miles apart in more ways than one.
"The system how they teach is very different," said 18-year-old Pasang Sherpa, who arrived in New York four years ago. "In Nepal we only memorized from the textbooks."
Thousands of students like Sherpa enter the city's schools every year from countries where education systems differ widely from a U.S. schoolroom. Many know little English and some have had no formal schooling at all.
The transition for Sherpa was smoothed by the Refugee Youth Summer Academy, a 16-year-old project of the International Rescue Committee, a non-governmental organization that resettles refugees.
About 130 students from more than 30 countries are enrolled in this summer's six-week session, which started July 6 in a public school building near Wall Street. Along with English, math, social studies and the arts, they are learning how to navigate New York City and how to handle themselves in school.
"The idea of questioning a teacher in many cultures is so counter to what they've been taught," said principal Kira O'Brien, "and yet so much of our education system is based on kids questioning."
Sherpa, whose family left Nepal because of conflict between Maoist rebels and the government, went through the academy and is back this summer as an assistant teacher.
Sherpa said she was introduced to other cultures through the refugee academy. "In Nepal there is only Nepali people and we don't really work with other people," she said. "And here I get to meet people from Burma, Africa, China. I share with them my culture and they share with me their culture."
Sherpa was helping teach English to middle schoolers last week. Zain Younus, a bright-eyed 13-year-old from Pakistan, was the first to raise his hand.
The refugee academy "gives me so much confidence to raise my hand," he said. "And it's so much fun. I have new friends from different countries."
Sara Rowbottom, the education and learning manager for the International Rescue Committee, said some of the academy's students are from refugee families that the committee is working to settle, while others have been referred by other organizations or by schools.
Some students have been in the U.S. only a few weeks while others have been in the country for a year or more.
O'Brien, the principal, said some students are not literate either in English or in their native language.
"We have some kids who had to work, some kids coming out of a place like Chad who because of conflict were not able to access education," she said.
During the regular school year the students will join a system whose 1.1 million pupils speak about 160 languages.
The New York City Department of Education does not track how many students are first-generation immigrants or how many are refugees, but Yalitza Vasquez, chief of staff for the department's Division of English Language Learners and Student Support, said there are about 150,000 students classified as English language learners.
A subset of about 14,000 are known as Students with Interrupted Formal Education, meaning they are newcomers who are two or more years below grade level either in math or in literacy in their home language.
Vasquez said there are after-school and weekend programs intended to help these students catch up. "The DOE has been doing extensive work to support this population," she said.
Max Ahmed, education advocacy associate for the New York Immigration Coalition, said some schools do a better job than others of teaching refugees and students whose schooling has been interrupted.
Ahmed said that without appropriate services these students can fall through the cracks.
"That one kid in the back who is not speaking gets ignored and left out," he said.