Last week was the Addressing the Needs of our Growing Newcomer Population forum at Urban Promise Academy. Our goals were for funders and district leaders to hear about what is working for our newcomer students, and what gaps still exist. Newcomers are students who have been in the US for less than one year.
I learned a lot from listening to our students and teachers, and I have shared some of my learnings below. The main takeaway for me was that, despite increased staffing for newcomers as a result of this year's budget, we are still severely understaffed where newcomer programs are concerned. The new position created, Newcomer Coordinator, is helping to coordinate services and provide overall guidance to our schools with newcomers, but there are several pressing needs that are still not being met.
Listening to Fremont High School teacher Michelle de Jesus Guzman. Fremont High School has one of the largest newcomer programs in OUSD.
1. We need more staff who speak the languages of the families represented in the school. Many schools have two dozen or more home languages represented in the school, and the ability to communicate with families and students in their language is critical to the success of our students. It also helps to build trust with populations that often do not trust authority figures, and can help us to better understand the obstacles families experience, which helps to better support students.
2. We need lower student to teacher ratios for newcomers in order to ensure that we can deal with additional needs that newcomers students often have, especially those that have experienced trauma in their countries of origin.
3. There are particular challenges in developing teachers who are trained to work with newcomers, who can speak the students' language AND are trained as Special Education teachers. This is an area that we need to do better in.
4. Our elementary schools have not been the focus for our newcomer programs, and as a result, many of the elementary school teachers who attended the forum reported feeling that they have not received any specific training or support as teachers of newcomer students. We have to provide better support to elementary school teachers with newcomer students.
5. We need to work with the Student Assignment Office to be more intentional about how and where in Oakland newcomer students are placed.
6. We need to improve our projections for staffing for newcomers. The projections were way off for some schools, which means that we did not have sufficient people in place to prepare for and support our students.
7. We need more wraparound supports for newcomers, including bus passes to make it easier for students to get to school, housing assistance for unaccompanied minor students who are kicked out of relatives' homes, and greater access to mental health services. Also, students need to be assessed much sooner after they arrive in the school community. Sometimes it takes several months for students to be assessed, which leads to delays in students getting their needs met.
8. Teachers need more support and training in order to work with newcomers, especially in the areas of curriculum development and language training. One teacher suggested that we incentivize teachers to learn the home languages of our students, by offering tuition reimbursement or paid time for teachers to take language classes. Another teacher said that there is a great need to adapt standard curriculum to meet the needs of newcomers, which is very time-consuming, especially with the large number of newcomer students with histories of interrupted formal education.
9. I learned that not all students are eligible to be tested in their home languages, especially after a student's first year in the US. That was disturbing for me, because schools are often evaluated on the basis of standardized test scores. We have numerous schools in Oakland that have large numbers of newcomer students who are still learning English, however the students are being tested in English. Those results tell only a small part of the story about how schools are serving students, and are often inaccurate representations of how students are doing.
10. The last thing that I heard loud and clear is that there are not yet common standards and practices between newcomer programs in Oakland, and there is a need for more consistency among programs, and for each site to have a Newcomer Coordinator.
This is clearly a long list of needs, and we probably cannot address them all in the coming year. This year we managed to get classrooms opened for newcomers based on our projections of the students that would be coming, which was a big win. We also started a partnership with Mills College to provide professional development to newcomer teachers, and are working with the Teaching Channel to share strong newcomer teaching practices more widely.
I hope that we can get some of the items I listed above resourced in the coming year.
One opportunity I am particularly excited about is hiring more interpreters, because I believe that can help us make progress on many fronts. It will help us reach out to more families about attendance and school discipline issues in their language, we can better support student achievement when teachers can communicate more easily with families, and it will also strengthen school governance teams, and make it possible for a wider variety of the school community to participate.
It is clear that adequate staffing is critical to the success of newcomer students, and we need to allocate more resources to strengthen our newcomer programs.