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Newcomers School seeks to bridge language gap among students
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Newcomers School seeks to bridge language gap among students

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GREENSBORO

A 30-minute nap in class each day at Newcomers School was about the only rest one student got for weeks.

The student, a 17-year-old African named Idrissa, worked nights at McDonald’s to support himself and his 16-year-old sister. He left work in time to change clothes quickly before catching the school bus about 6:15 a.m.

The situation is not unusual, said Candice Bailey, the principal at Newcomers, which provides up to one year of focused instruction for immigrant and refugee students new to the United States.

Such struggles underscore one reason why newcomers programs for immigrant and refugee students exist: Basic social and mental-health needs must be met so students can focus on learning. Those new to the country and who don’t speak English are particularly vulnerable.

The roughly 260 students at Newcomers are immigrants and refugees who have been in the United States less than a year and never have attended a U.S. public school.

They represent the broader challenge in Guilford County Schools, and increasingly in schools across the country, to meet better the needs of students who don’t speak English.

About 5,523 students in Guilford County Schools are considered English learners, less than 10 percent of the roughly 72,000 students enrolled. They struggle to learn the language or perform well in proficiency exams, based on data analyzed by the News & Record.

Guilford County Schools uses Newcomers to try to advance the skills of these students.

There are few standalone schools such as Newcomers across the country. It is the only one in North Carolina to serve these students.

Many of them arrive having had limited or no formal schooling. They may not be literate in their native languages. They might be grieving loved ones killed in wars or left behind.

It’s not unusual to find students who are living independent of their families, Bailey said. Sometimes they live with another family or an older sibling who expects them to make financial contributions.

“Many of our kids, they have gone through loss. They have been in danger. They have gone through war,” said Valeria Kouba, the curriculum facilitator at Newcomers. “They have gone through a lot, and you have to deal with all of those emotions.”

Many students see Newcomers as a safe place where they can learn English and get acclimated to their new country and education system.

But they only are allowed to stay at the school for one year.

A segregated school

The federal Office of Civil Rights considers Newcomers a segregated school because it only serves students whose first language is not English.

As recently as January, the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division and the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights issued guidance to schools discouraging the unnecessary segregation of students considered language minorities.

That guidance notes the departments would not likely find schools or programs to be in violation of segregating English learners if they are a voluntary option for a limited time, generally one year. It references Title IV of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits federally funded programs and activities from discriminating on the basis of race, gender or national origin.

There are newcomer programs and schools across the country where students are allowed to stay for several years. It’s not immediately clear what consequences, if any, schools might face for keeping students in newcomers programs for multiple years.

In Guilford County, families can choose not to send their children to the Newcomers School. Some families also choose to send students on to a regular school after less than a year at Newcomers.

For some students, “one year is more than enough,” Kouba said. “In other cases, one year is not enough at all.”

Usually, if families choose for a student to leave Newcomers early, it’s because of transportation, Kouba said. Students are bused to Newcomers from all across the county.

Accepting environment

Those who stay, she said, are in a multilingual environment that recognizes their culture and heritages.

“Rather than being bullied or ignored because they’re different, they are seen as special and unique because they are different,” she said.

At regular schools, some teachers might not have experience working with a student who is an English learner and doesn’t understand something.

At Newcomers, students raise their hands to ask questions if they don’t understand, Kouba said. They participate in class.

She recalled a classroom scene from her first year at Newcomers. A student did not agree with the result of a math problem the class was discussing.

“He dared to raise his hand and in his very broken English try to explain to the teacher why he thought it was a different result,” Kouba said.

When he couldn’t find the words to explain, the boy picked up a marker and worked out the math on the board, she said.

“That student would have never been able to do that in a regular setting,” she said. “Never.”

Had he tried to do the same thing in a regular setting, other students who spoke better English likely would have stepped in. She said she didn’t see English learners take that ownership of their education outside of Newcomers. Instead, she said, she sees them try to be invisible.

“If you don’t call on me for the whole semester, if you don’t remember I’m sitting here, I’ll just pretend I’m part of the furniture because that’s a safe place to be,” she said. “And I think what makes Newcomers different is that the school is a safe place to be.”

A path to success

When they enroll, many students at Newcomers can read English at the kindergarten level or below, Bailey said. They improve during their year, she said, but at most to a third-grade level.

That’s a challenge for students in high school, who also are closer to aging out of public school at 21.

“I have a little more heartburn when I have … a student who’s 18 and who has never, ever been in school and who has no documentation (of prior schooling),” Bailey said.

Students graduate from other high schools and not Newcomers School. Still, documentation of any prior schooling helps officials determine a student’s grade level and develop for them a plan to graduate, earn a diploma and go on to get a job or continue their education. Without documentation of prior schooling, officials can only make those determinations based on a student’s age.

Students with limited English proficiency — a group that includes immigrants and refugees — graduate at a lower rate than any other demographic group in Guilford County Schools, school system data show. The graduation rate for that group was 63.6 percent, compared with 88.5 percent for the system as a whole.

English learners also accounted for the only dip in graduation rates last year. Data collected statewide in 2014 show that 51.7 percent of English learners graduated in four years, a lower rate than any other subgroup tracked by the state. By comparison, 83.9 percent of all students statewide graduated in that time frame.

Lacking a high school diploma stymies a worker’s earning potential, national employment data show.

Last year, the national unemployment rate for workers without high school diplomas was 9 percent, more than 30 percent higher than the rate for high school graduates, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Adults without a diploma earn on average about $488 a week, about 27 percent less than high school graduates, bureau data show.

But more than likely, graduating high school and getting a job barely register for students on that first day at Newcomers.

A first day

Fatima Rodriguez enrolled at Newcomers School in February, a full month into the second semester of the 2014-15 school year.

She started the day picking from a pile of donated backpacks before choosing a pink-and-purple one covered with large rainbow hearts. Then she carefully tucked into it a Spanish-English dictionary, folders, pencils and notebooks — all donated supplies she would need for her first day of classes.

Later that morning, Fatima knitted her eyebrows as Kouba, the curriculum facilitator, used a crayon to color in Argentina on a world map.

“I am from Argentina,” Kouba said. Then she asked, pointing to the United States and other countries, “Where are you from?”

Fatima pointed to the drawing of Mexico.

A quick reading assessment showed Fatima to be literate in Spanish. She kept a steady rhythm, stumbling just a few times, as she read a passage in Spanish, drawing praise from Kouba.

“Yay! Wow! Awesome reader! You read so beautifully!”

Kouba’s exclamations made Fatima smile.

But she also had clear gaps in her knowledge of English.

Kouba read to her in English a short passage about the five senses — sight, smell, touch, taste, sound.

“What do you feel with?” she asked in English.

Fatima pointed to the picture of ears.

That morning, Fatima learned how to fill in answer bubbles on a Scantron. It’s a brand name sheet like those used for the tests that she would have to take in just a few short months.

Fear and tears

When Thom Ksor attended Newcomers about two years ago, she couldn’t speak English well, although she had studied it before. She recalled with a laugh that she couldn’t even ask to go to the bathroom.

The language and school weren’t the only things new for her.

Ksor, now 20, is a Montagnard from Vietnam. She said she had never before seen so many people who looked so different. She said she was surprised to see, for the first time, Muslim girls wearing garments that covered them from head to toe.

Ksor graduated from Page High in June with plans to enroll at Guilford Technical Community College.

New students enroll at Newcomers every week throughout the school year. Some leave at each semester break, which can mean transitioning to a regular school in the middle of the academic year.

There are always tears, Kouba said.

“You’re scared,” she said. “You’re in a situation where you feel you have to start all over again. And it’s not easy. And now you’re going to miss the people who are here, too, and the friends you had here, too.

“It just adds up to the things that you lose.”

And it doesn’t matter if they enroll in August or April, come spring, Newcomers students have to take state standardized tests along with everyone else.

In January, the state released for the first time letter grades for each school based heavily on students’ standardized-test performances.

Newcomers students, who by definition are not proficient, demonstrated grade-level performance on 18.6 percent of the tests taken in 2013-14, according to the most recent state data available.

The average for all of Guilford schools was 53.6 percent, or a D if the state had also assigned school systems letter grades.

Newcomers School received an F.

Struggling in America

For some students at Newcomers, the year they spend adjusting to life in the U.S. also involves coping with trauma. Some of that they suffered at refugee camps before arriving here.

Esther Idassi, a local advocate for immigrants and refugees who used to work as a Swahili interpreter for Guilford County Mental Health, heard such stories from immigrant parents. Their children may have witnessed a rape or other acts of violence against a parent or sibling, she said.

At times, the camps would shut down for days when someone managed to get weapons inside. Rebels sometimes sneaked in and set fires, she said.

After outbreaks of violence, a school might be shut down for three or four months.

Some refugees still struggle with hunger, even in America, Idassi said, and some have a harder time here than they had in refugee camps.

In the camps, people were sometimes able to grow food and start small businesses. They find it difficult to do the same here.

“When they come here, the depression kicks in. The loneliness kicks in because now they don’t have the village life,” Idassi said. “They don’t have the land where they can be more self-sufficient with, maybe, vegetables, things like that.”

Once resettled, teens often become interpreters for their families. Their parents may be reluctant or unable to help them with school because of language barriers. Many of the parents also are not fluent in English and may have had limited schooling themselves.

Some children make the trip to the United States alone. Once here, they might live with another family member or an older sibling.

Kouba, the Newcomers curriculum facilitator, said she has seen many immigrant or refugee children go through emotional struggles.

Many have been separated from their parents for years.

“Teenage years are hard enough, and if you have not been the parent for many years and then you try to act as the parent, they are heartbroken,” she said. “They have felt abandoned. They cannot understand the parents did it (relocated) because it was the best thing.”

In some cases, families need teens to work to provide income or to help bring over relatives from their home countries.

Some teens, like Idrissa, have no one else to rely on for financial support.

No staff member at Newcomers knew that Idrissa, who may have since moved to another state, was working almost 24 hours a day. His younger sister, who was also a Newcomers student, braided hair on the weekends to earn money, Bailey, the principal, said.

She worked with Idrissa’s teacher and a school social worker to get him public assistance so he wouldn’t have to work that grueling schedule.

“He was trying to pay the rent, pay the lights, pay the gas. He was the responsible adult. So what is a 17-year-old going to do? He stepped up to the plate,” Bailey said.

“But what are you going to say? Don’t go to work and be homeless? What do you say?”

Contact Marquita Brown at (336) 373-7002 and follow @mbrownNR on Twitter.

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