It started about 13 years ago when a refugee father walked into the offices of Utah’s State Charter School Board and informed the staff that refugee children needed a school.

“‘We want a school that is different for our kids.’ That parent is the one who who got this started and then it grew from there,” said Amy Wylie, who at the time was working in the state’s Refugee Services Office and was among a small group of people who launched the school.

On Friday, the school community celebrated Utah International Charter School’s 10th anniversary with an observance that included a fashion show, musical performances, literature readings, dance performances and food from the students’ home countries and cultures.

Alumni Jonathan Amisi and Zamzam Ahmed addressed the school’s students, faculty, staff and community members about what the school has meant to them.

Amisi, born in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, spoke, read and wrote only French when his family was resettled to Utah, and he started school at Utah International in 2017.

“Switching everything to English was hard, really, really hard,” Amisi said.

“But I remember that every teacher here had my back. They supported me,” he said, calling out his teachers by name. Many of those educators and administrators still work at the school.

Last year, Amisi earned an associate degree in computer science from Salt Lake Community College. He is in the process of moving to San Diego to work in the tech industry.

“This school has made me who I am today,” Amisi said. “If you know that you want to do something big in your life, talk to your teachers,” he said, addressing the students.

Ahmed, who entered the public charter school as an ninth grader, shared that before relocating to Utah in 2013, her Somali refugee parents had enrolled her in a private school in South Africa.

But it wasn’t until she started at Utah International that she was in a learning environment among “people that looked like me, spoke the same language and wore the hijab,” a head covering worn by many Muslim girls and women.

“In South Africa, I was at a private school on a scholarship and I was the only Black student and only student wearing hijab,” she said.

On her first day at Utah International, Ahmed said she feared that she would be marginalized. But to her surprise, a teacher welcomed her with a traditional African greeting, which helped her feel at home.

Ahmed said she thrived in small classes and with the encouragement of teachers who helped her to believe she could become whatever she wanted to be. She gained acceptance to four universities and received a full-ride scholarship to the University of Utah.

She recently graduated from the U. with a bachelor of science of nursing. Next she plans to apply to medical school and serve on Utah International’s charter school board.

“I hope to see Utah International grow into a much bigger school,” she said.

Principal Usha Narra is honored during a reunion to celebrate 10 years of the Utah International Charter School in Salt Lake City, on Friday May 31, 2024 | Marielle Scott, Deseret News

Principal Usha Narra said Utah International students have benefitted from a relatively stable faculty. Eight teachers, two paraprofessionals and three administrative staff members have worked at the school for more than eight years.

“People stay when they come here,” she said.

The faculty has become expert at explicit English instruction across every discipline taught at the school and its preparation of students for post-secondary education and the workforce.

Narra said the school has no individual student desks. Students work at tables, which fosters collaboration skills. The school also strives to develop students’ critical-thinking skills and diverse global perspectives.

Over the past decade, the school also weathered COVID disruptions, and in 2019 was identified for turnaround status due to low performance on state indicators. Such schools are provided additional resources with the expectation they improve academic achievement within three years or face other actions. Utah International’s turnaround status was lifted by the Utah State Board of Education in fall 2022.

The school emerged from those trials stronger. Among its 2019 graduates, 59% enrolled in higher education. In 2021, nearly one-third of its students earned a college scholarship and 97% completed college applications, according to the school’s 2022 turnaround presentation to state education officials.

The presentation also reflects that 6% of Utah International students had not attended any school before they enrolled at the Utah school. More than half of those who had attended school missed significant amounts of their prior school and 35% who attended Utah International during the 2021-22 academic year were in their first school year in the United States.

Reflecting back on a decade, Narra said there is a lot to be proud of at Utah International Charter School, which occupies the former Granite District Hartvigsen School in South Salt Lake.

She thanked parents, teachers, the school’s inaugural principal Angela Rowland, community partners and the students themselves for their respective roles in the school’s collective success.

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Students, past and present, “are the heart of our school. You are all kind, you’re respectful. You hold yourself to the highest values. Your curiosity, your grit, your determination to excel are an inspiration and drive us in creating an environment that allows us to help you grow into the leaders of tomorrow,” she said.

Utah International Charter School was founded with a mission to provide a rigorous and relevant education for secondary students, including recently arrived immigrants and refugees, Narra said.

“Over the years, we’ve become experts in working with new arrival students and in making rigorous content accessible to all students. Students experience explicit English language instruction in every single class. It doesn’t matter if it’s math, PE or music. All teachers embed English language instruction into their curriculum. We are proud of the program that we built and consider ourselves to be the experts in this area,” she said.

The school’s success also is a testament to the educators’ dedication and passion that “has inspired and nurtured the lives of students every day, and you deserve our deepest thanks. Your commitment to excellence in education, your unwavering love and support for our students are the foundations upon which our school stands,” Narra said.

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