By Elizabeth Nunez, CNN
(CNN) – They say the miracle can be witnessed in the hallways: Teenagers who struggle to pronounce words like “toothbrush” in their Level 1 language classes are heard a few months later chatting in fluent English in the winding corridors of Newcomers Public High School in Long Island City, Queens.
Alfredo Duque, 17, was one of them. When he arrived to the United States three years ago from Guerrero, Mexico to live with his aunt and uncle in Queens, he enrolled at the school. After his graduation this coming June, he will move to Wisconsin to attend Lawrence University with a Posse Scholarship to cover all of his tuition.
Stories like his are not uncommon at the school. Newcomers is devoted exclusively to teaching immigrant students who have arrived to the United States within a year or less of enrolling. Half of them come from Latin American countries, one quarter from China and the rest from over 40 countries, mostly in Southeast Asia, Africa and Eastern Europe.
The students speak little or no English and yet Newcomers sends 90 percent of its graduating seniors to college, and at least a third of them win some kind of scholarship.
Senior Susandi Htut, from Burma, is being considered for a Torch Scholarship at Northeastern University in Boston. Susandi, 19, arrived to the United States with her mom and two younger brothers in 2006 to join her father, who works as a nurse technician at Rikers Island prison health care service.
While she waits to hear from Northeastern, Bard College has already given her a partial scholarship. If selected, Susandi, who is torn between majoring in biology or political science, says she will be first in her family to attend university.
Accomplishments like these helped Newcomers reach the 6th place in US World and News Report’s list of top 100 high schools in the country in 2009.
Principal Orlando Sarmiento, an immigrant from Colombia himself, says this success hinges on many factors. Newcomers was founded in 1995 with a mission and curriculum focused on the needs of immigrants. It works with parents to help them support the students with their coursework and partners with community-based organizations where they go for internships and outreach work.
The school carefully selects teachers trained in their subjects as well as in English as a Second Language instruction. Some of them are immigrants too and go on to become students’ mentors.
Ms. Sunghee Byun, a history teacher from South Korea, helped Bangladeshi Shantanu Roy when he first arrived without speaking a word of English. Shantanu failed her class, but Ms. Byun talked to his mother at a parent-teacher conference and suggested they try tutoring.
Hours of work and extracurricular activities paid off last fall when Shantanu was one of 12 students in New York City who attended the high-level Summit on Climate Change at the United Nations and met First Lady Michelle Obama. Shantanu says the school’s environment of teachers and students forms a safety net to their success.
“We’re not scared of each other, not scared of speaking English, none of us speaks it,” he says with an almost imperceptible accent.
For Sarmiento, the language barrier is an opportunity in disguise.
“Yes, initially the fact that they don’t speak English is a challenge, but they’re ahead because most people are not bilingual.”
When the time for college application rolls by, low English SAT scores are buttressed with profiles brimming with extracurricular activities from music to sports to hours of community service and Advanced Placement courses.
Blanca Izaguirre, one of Newcomers college counselors, says that even the undocumented students, which make up about 35 to 40 percent of each year’s graduating class, are encouraged to get an education
“The American Dream is about the struggle and the success of the underdog.”
The school, which includes music and visual arts in its curriculum, has been struggling to keep all its activities amidst the recession. It has cut programs for resident artists who used to visit the students, some professional development courses and scaled back on field trips around the city.
So far, Sarmiento says eight teachers have left, including a highly regarded arts instructor who was one of the founding members of the school.
“Some of them it was because of the recession, but some of them was also because the number of immigrants coming to the school was declining,” Sarmiento explained.
Finances have an impact on the students' future too.
Shantanu, who works at a Rite Aid drugstore, dreams of studying international affairs and has applied to CUNY, SUNY and Pace University, among others.
"I can't afford to pay for college with the money I make," he says, so his decision will depend on which school gives him more financial aid.
So far, Shantanu has received a $44,000 scholarship from Pace, but he might end up going to South Korea, where a college specialized in science has offered him full tuition and monthly allowances.
It’s an opportunity he also found thanks to Ms. Byun.