Providence's 'Newcomer School' for Refugee High School Kids

On Monday April 3rd I had the good fortune to attend an incredibly moving press conference, announcing the opening of the Providence School District's Newcomer program, for high school-aged refugees and immigrants.  Soledad Barreto, PPSD's director of language acquisition, modeled it on earlier efforts in Seattle and St. Paul.  Temporarily housed at the old Asa Messer School, the program currently enrolls 41 students; the goal is to get up to 100 by the fall, and find a more permanent home.

Many of these children arrive in Providence without family, and having endured emotional and physical trauma in their countries of origin.  “They need intensive support,” Barreto told the Providence Journal.  “We’re hoping to provide them with social and emotional support.  We’re asking, ‘How do we wrap our arms around these students?’ ”  Students eligible for the Newcomer program have generally been away from school for 2 years or more, and often struggle in their own languages as well as in English.  Given all of these obstacles, it simply doesn't make sense to drop them into a big public high school.  Their needs are quite specific and unlikely to be met in that setting.  Dropping out of school altogether would thus be a distinct possibility, limiting their economic self-sufficiency, and separating them from the help they need.  

The newcomers receive rigorous teaching in English, math and science in small groups with translators.  According to Superintendent Chris Maher, "every course, whether it be math or science, has English Learning instruction embedded in its lessons, so that students are working to improve their literacy skills all day, every day.”  Social workers trained in helping children and families with trauma are on site, to work with students and parents alike. 

The program started a few weeks ago with five teachers, who are receiving training in cultural competency and response to trauma. The enrollment is expected to double by the fall, and 14 more teachers will be added.  Students will return to their 'home high school' once they've acquired sufficient English language skills.  

Two young female Congolese refugees testified at the press conference about what they're learning, and expressed thanks for being able to participate in a peaceful and respectful community. Parents and students are able to receive all sorts of essential services through the Newcomer program, thanks to PPSD's partnership with Dorcas International, which does refugee resettlement work.  Parents will have ESL instruction made available to them as well.

As hopeful as the Newcomer program is, our current capacity and resources aren't yet adequate to meet the need.  It doesn't include younger students, for example.  Providence has over 1700 students who have been in the country less than 3 years, and that number is growing.  As a school board member, I'm proud to be a small part of this important effort.  And as a member of the city council, I would work hard to improve and expand this effort, and work with the School District to help younger refugees too.

Posted on 03 Apr 2017, 14:01 - Category: public education

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