A Welcome to Student Newcomers

East Side Monthly Magazine ·

In March, Providence Public Schools started an innovative program to meet the needs of high school students who have just moved to the United States. Currently, 47 students speaking eight languages, many of them from Central America, Africa and the Middle East, receive intensive English as a Second Language (ESL) instruction, core academics and support services to ready them for integration into Rhode Island’s public schools.

The curriculum was designed in response to the growing number of “newcomers” – immigrant students whose formal education has been interrupted for at least two years. The average grade completed by these students is sixth; the average age is 16. Superintendent Christopher Maher explains, “The program is focused exclusively on students who are new to this country, and its curriculum is designed to address their unique needs. 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.”

Housed in a newly renovated facility on Messer Street, the Newcomer Program also offers emotional and cultural support to help students acclimate to the U.S., as many of the students are separated from their families or come from war-torn countries. There is a trauma-trained social worker available, and the school district has contracted with Dorcas International Institute of Rhode Island to maintain a case manager on site, who can connect students and families with community support services.

Kathy Cloutier, Dorcas International’s executive director, says, “The Newcomer Program supports a key group of vulnerable youth, many of whom have come from homelands ravaged by violence. Dorcas International is thrilled that this partnership is committed to the educational goals of these students and addresses their needs holistically. Their success in school can have a positive impact on their entire family.” Toward that end, Dorcas International reaches out to the families of newcomer students, offering translation services, parent workshops, adult ESL classes, social services and immigration support.

The Newcomer Program is designed to help students transition to a public high school or job skills program. Students may be enrolled for anywhere from one semester to two academic years. The program provides opportunities for students to make cross-cultural connections and support one another, in addition to helping them gain English vocabulary and life skills.

Program Director and Director of Language Acquisition Soledad Barreto has already seen tremendous growth in the students enrolled. One young man, A, who had some behavioral issues at the public school he attended, has begun to show leadership skills in the Newcomer Program. When B – a fellow program participant who spoke a different language – was having difficulty getting to school, A offered to accompany him on the bus home. Early the next morning, A returned to B’s house to show him how to catch the bus back to school.

These kinds of successes underline the true importance of the program. As Soledad says, “It’s not just the academics, it’s not just the language acquisition, it’s about making these kids feel welcomed and loved. We give them the initial tools they need so that they can learn the language and they can learn the academics, but they need to feel that they belong here.”

Mayor Jorge Elorza emphasized this when he unveiled his budget: “We want all of our residents to feel connected to their community… Many of these youth [in the Newcomer Program] have escaped some of the most traumatic experiences imaginable; nevertheless, they’ve persevered. In these times when anxiety is at full tilt, we owe it to them to let them know that they’re safe and that they’re embraced by their new community.”

More than a quarter of all students in Providence Public Schools qualify for English Language Learner (ELL) services. Although educational funding for non-native English speakers is included in Governor Raimondo’s state budget, and Mayor Elorza has proposed an increase in the school budget, more money will be needed to provide services for all of our students. As their needs increase, so too must our commitment to them.

Innovative programs like the Newcomer Program strengthen our whole community. Providence Public Schools communications director Laura Hart points out, “We have a choice. We can elevate [these students] so that they become examples of what it means to be multilingual and educated in a cool city like Providence, or we can choose not to address their needs and deal with the consequences later when we’re looking for an educated workforce. Economically, we would be foolish to not invest in this population.”

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