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Immigrant Students Get Crash Course In Being An American High Schooler

San Diego Unified's New Arrivals Centers teach recent immigrant students more than English.

— The morning English lesson in Gwen Osgard’s classroom at Crawford High School is coming to an end and 17-year-old Phu Nguyen is practicing reading.

Nguyen arrived in the United States from Vietnam in May. So far, she’s liking her classes here more.

“Yeah, I like school. It’s good. I’m happy,” she says.

Nguyen’s reading partner, 14-year-old Dulashi Adhikri, comes from Nepal and she feels the same way about her classes at Crawford.

They're good, better than going to school in Nepal, she says.

Nguyen and Adhikri don’t move from classroom to classroom, having a different teacher each period like other students in the four high schools housed at the Crawford Educational Complex in City Heights. Most of their classmates spend all day in what San Diego Unified calls a New Arrivals Center. Their math, history and science classes are with the same English language teacher, who introduces them to the concepts and vocabulary they’ll use in mainstream classes the next year.

Each year a couple hundred middle and high school students who do not speak English trickle into San Diego city schools. There are 11 New Arrivals Center classrooms across the district aimed at easing their transition into American schooling. Three of those classrooms are at Crawford, where there were about 60 New Arrivals students last year.

But the students often face even bigger challenges than picking up English quickly.

“Our kids are largely refugee kids and they’re coming from war-torn countries," Osgard says. "In their countries, living in the refugee camps, often times they didn’t go to school, or they went to school once in awhile. For the most part, they have not had an educational background in their own languages.”

That’s why it’s so important Nguyen and Adhikri’s be made to feel at ease just weeks into the school year.

“They come to school and they’re lost. You can see that deer-in-the-headlights look on the first day of school," says Carol Rothenberg, who oversees the New Arrivals Centers and came along for the visit to Osgard's class. "And from almost the moment they walk into our classrooms they begin to feel a sense of belonging. They make friends with the other students, they know that the teachers care deeply about them.”

Before the New Arrivals Centers were created, Osgard was an English as a Second Language teacher. Her students had one class with her, then spent the rest of the day in mainstream classes. Stepping into the walkway outside her classroom, she says she sees a big achievement difference in her students from the last three years.

“I definitely expect more graduation success," she says. "They’re having more success in their mainstream classes. They’re able to earn high grades and their GPA’s are better. And they’re having more success emotionally. Because I used to teach ESL 3/4 and 5/6 and I would see kids just drowning the rest of their day, dropping out because they felt like failures and this didn’t seem to be a place for them.”

It is even possible a former New Arrivals students will be the valedictorian at one of Crawford's high schools this spring, Osgard says.

In 2009 the Center for Applied Linguistics found 62 other programs like San Diego’s in 24 states. San Diego’s program is one of just five in California. Out of those, three programs, including San Diego's started in 2008.

Now students spend one year in the New Arrivals Centers. The district is looking at extending that. But just the one year program has been a great leap forward, according to Diego Gutierrez, principal of the Invention and Design Educational Academy and the Multimedia and Visual Arts School at the Crawford Educational Complex. He started working on the campus as a teacher in the early 90s. He remembers when he couldn’t figure out how to reach the quiet, attentive, but lost immigrant students who sat at the back of his math classes.

“It has actually prompted us to create additional support now as they exit the new arrivals center," he says. "To the point that this year, we have a science, a social studies and a math class – two math classes where the kids are mostly going to these teachers. They’ve been trained and they will continue to receive support. They know then that these kids language needs are different than the other kids that attend the same classes.”

Even after Osgard’s students leave for mainstream classes, many spend free periods with her. They clearly have a sense of responsibility to the program and their classmates. One students, Leh Say, asked Osgard to help three families enroll their children in school. They had been waiting months for translation assistance.

“We did a home visit and went to see what we needed to get done as far as shot record goes to get them here and get them enrolled in school," Osgard says. Then he just walked them to school in the morning and basically spent his day getting released from different classes so that he could translate for them.”

There was a simple reason he wanted Osgard to reach out to those families.

“I think I should be helping the new people. Because when I come to school, like to the United States somebody helping me,” Say says standing next to Osgard's desk during one of his free periods.

The New Arrivals Centers cost the district more than traditional ESL classes, according to Rothenberg. But she says the successes that Osgard and her other teachers are seeing are well worth it .

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