Building confidence in students is an essential part of teaching children who are new to the country and learning English, says Fort Worth educator Kimberly Fabela.

Most of them not only struggle with a new language but also have suffered trauma, some refugees fleeing from war zones where they may never have been in a classroom setting.

So first, Fabela makes them comfortable in her classroom through heavily interactive lessons and by encouraging lots of talking. She gives students who might feel awkward or uncomfortable small ways to get familiar with the language.

“When you’re in a new country, new friends, new culture, new everything — what a hit that takes to your confidence,” said Fabela, who teaches at Fort Worth’s International Newcomer Academy. 

Children learning English were among the students hardest hit in the pandemic as they faced challenges with language and technology. 

Such students had fewer opportunities to interact with teachers and peers who could help them practice English, a summer report from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights noted.

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Meanwhile, their parents often struggled with their own language barriers and strains on the family that made it even more difficult to help their children thrive, particularly when it came to online learning.

Some school systems estimated that less than half of all English-language learners were logging on to virtual learning — many because they lacked digital access, according to the Migration Policy Institute.

As schools try to address widespread learning loss caused by COVID-19 disruptions, particularly for students learning English, those who work at newcomer academies offer lessons in how to quickly identify needs and fill learning gaps so that children can get back on track.

Back to Class: How schools can rebound

Educators know what will work to help kids catch up after the pandemic’s unprecedented disruptions to education. The Seattle Times is publishing a series of stories in partnership with The Christian Science Monitor, The Hechinger Report, the Solutions Journalism Network and the Education Labs at AL.com, The Dallas Morning News, and The Fresno Bee. This series explores how schools and districts have embraced best practices, or innovated to find new solutions, for back to school. 

In Texas, one in five students in public schools is an English-language learner. In Washington, about 12% of students were identified as English-language learners in 2020-21, slightly above the national figure of 10%.

Newcomer students are asylum seekers, immigrants, refugees or migrant children. Some Texas school districts have programs specifically designed for these children where they not only work on language skills but also receive “wraparound services” that help them through struggles outside the classroom. (Washington also has newcomer schools, including the Seattle Public Schools’ Seattle World School.) 

They are designed to be intense learning environments where students generally spend at least one year catching up before moving on to regular campuses.

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Students come from about 30 different countries, speaking nearly two dozen languages at Fort Worth Independent School District’s International Newcomer Academy. The children — who range from sixth to ninth grade — often learn best through routines and repetition, Fabela noted. 

Students help each other build on skills by tackling reading assignments together in small groups. They find ways to complete tasks together, even when the children might all speak different languages.

Although they might not comprehend an entire reading assignment, the students build on their vocabulary as they discuss the assignment. They answer questions on the story, draw out its main idea and, as a group, present to the class what they learned.

Working in groups allows students to learn more about the content of the lessons and also build up vocabulary, analytical, social and behavioral skills. It also helps Fabela identify the words that they’re missing or struggling with at that moment so she can build the next lesson.

“We make sure that we embed a lot of that at one time so that we’re getting more bang for our buck,” Fabela said.

Teachers at the academy are specifically trained to provide not only language support but also on how to teach in a way that students — many who have arrived recently to the United States — will understand, said Cloris Rangel, the executive director of FWISD’s Bilingual/ESL Department.

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“For many of them, this is the first time they ever even hear English,” she said.

While they may learn at a slower pace than peers at other schools, students are still learning the same content — only in bite-sized pieces with educators emphasizing the use of visuals and encouraging communication and expression to better absorb the language.

Since many of the students come from traumatic backgrounds — often arriving to the country with little resources — the academy emphasizes helping newcomer families by providing clothing, food, furniture or even help paying bills.

Just before school started, for example, FWISD’s newcomer academy gave away backpacks and school supplies. Staff talked to families about the services offered to help them get settled for the new year. 

Students received backpacks and other school supplies at the International Newcomer Academy’s Back to School Drive on the campus in Fort Worth, Texas, on Aug. 14, 2021. The school not only provides an intense language and educational support for children new to the United States, but it also helps families who are dealing with trauma, financial strain or other challenges. (Lawrence Jenkins / The Dallas Morning News)

One older sister of two children needed help finding out where she and her siblings’ could get school uniforms. She also worried that it would be an issue that her family did not know English. Academy staff reassured her.

“We’re here to help everybody, the student and the family,” Rangel said. “We know if the family is under any stress, it’s going to affect the kids and it’s going to affect their learning.”

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The pandemic made such stress even more pronounced for families. 

Many parents had jobs that cannot be done remotely or lost them entirely due to staff reductions during the pandemic. Families worried about being able to pay for medical costs or accessing care. Meanwhile, immigrant families often faced additional roadblocks that prevented them from participating in assistance programs or applying for aid, such as language barriers or fears that it would affect their immigration status, according to an Urban Institute report released in May.

And as many schools were operating virtually for so long, some students who needed the intense help of newcomer schools didn’t make it into them, said Steve Przymus, an assistant professor at Texas Christian University.

So what happened to these students during the pandemic is important, he noted.

“To me, that was one of the biggest challenges: wondering where they were; what access they had to schooling; who knew about them; and who was reaching out to them,” Przymus said.

With the pandemic forcing millions of students to learn remotely, FWISD’s academy faced a loss of connection — something essential for English learners. 

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The amount of time students would be speaking with their fellow classmates and teachers in not just English, but their own language, was significantly impacted, Przymus said. 

Students need engagement when they come to these schools, whether that be with classmates who speak the same language or with the general campus community, Przymus said. Kids act differently when they’re not at home, which leads to students creating and cultivating their own identity. 

“If a school can do anything to allow kids to feel comfortable, safe and valued, then they will start learning,” he said. “When kids don’t, they’re constantly in this fight-or-flight mode.”  

Principal Angelia Ross speaks with a parent and student from the International Newcomer Academy during the campus’ Back to School Drive in Fort Worth, Texas, on Aug. 14, 2021. The school not only provides an intense language and educational support for children new to the United States, but it also helps families who are dealing with trauma, financial strain or other challenges. (Lawrence Jenkins / The Dallas Morning News)

In Fort Worth, administrators created a “house system” to keep a sense of community, said Angelia Ross, the academy’s principal. Students from different grades were put into “houses” with designated teachers who would act as a support system while students were able to build friendships among peers in different grades. 

“We were able to kind of address that social-emotional disconnection that kids may feel when doing work online,” Ross said.

A 2012 report by the Center for Applied Linguistics that looked at effective programs for English-language learners praised Fort Worth’s program for incorporating proven effective teaching methods — such as cooperative learning environments, extended instruction time and multiyear plans to guide students.

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The report found that 52% of students at the school had exceeded standards on a state English-language proficiency test. However, it noted that the costly resources needed for the intense program are largely made up by limited local funds.

Fort Worth officials recently considered shutting down the academy this year when seeking space for other district needs. It was spared but to ease overcrowding at the academy, they did move some older students to a different alternative campus aimed at catching up high schoolers, according to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

Other Texas districts operate newcomer programs, including Grand Prairie. The International Newcomer Institute at Fannin Middle School serves about 100 students a school year who come from Mexico, Ecuador, Peru, Colombia, Cuba and elsewhere, said Flavia Romero, a facilitator at the school. 

“These kids come with a lot of experience — whether it’s good, bad or ugly — they come with experience,” she said. “The goal is to foster that and tie that into their current learning so that they can be successful.” 

Closing the gaps requires being intentional, Romero said. 

The school uses “scaffolding strategies,” for example, to learn where the students come from and what education level they already possess. By learning about the student, teachers can then better understand and accommodate their needs, Romero noted.  

“We really have to know where they are to help them achieve where they need to be,” she said. 

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A key part of helping students succeed at newcomer academies is keeping parents involved.

Faiha Al-Atrash initially joined Fort Worth’s INA to work with those who spoke Arabic. Now she is the community and parents coordinator for the school, reaching out to all families to learn about their histories and current hardships.

“Every student who arrives in this building has a story,” Al-Atrash said. “We don’t know the hardship these families and their kids come from.”

The first question she often asks families is what they like about being in America. “They say, ‘When my son or my daughter leaves in the morning, going to school, I know they are coming back, because where I come from sometimes, the child disappears,’” Al-Atrash said.

Meanwhile, these kinds of schools give students and their families time to adjust to an American school system and the culture without them getting lost, she noted. 

The approaches newcomer programs take to ease students into school could help other children learning English across the country re-enter classrooms after more than a year of disruptions and trauma brought on by the pandemic, educators say.

“It is the foundation for our kids to start in a school like this,” Al-Atrash said.