A first-of-its-kind program in Colorado aims to break down the barriers for students entering the U.S.
"We are in a really special place to build something," said Jessie Kokoszka.
Kokoszka is an English language development teacher with the Newcomer Center in the Adams 12 School District, which kicked off its first year as a program within the district.
"The majority of the students are brand new to the English language," said Kokoszka. "We work with students that are in the high school age level."
The program acts more like a school within a school, as it's housed inside Thornton High School.
Twelfth grader Lorena Vergara is among the students in the program.
"I come from Mexico. I came here around Aug. 6," said Vergara. "I came to live with one of my aunts."
Thirty students started out in the program at the beginning of the school year. Now that number has grown to roughly 95 and counting.
"We have some indigenous languages from Mexico, we have indigenous languages from Afghanistan. We have Dari, Pashtu, French, Ukrainian and Spanish," said Manissa Featherstone. "Every week, we enroll new students and we're able to enroll them from across the district."
Featherstone is the director of the Newcomer Center. She says the program started out of a need to support incoming refugee families from areas like Afghanistan.
"We realized that we really did have a need for a different kind of program, especially at the high school level where students have such a short period of time to learn English, learn academic English, be on track to graduate and be ready for post-secondary options," said Featherstone.
Now, the demand continues to grow for the area, as the migrant crisis brings more families into Colorado each day.
"We have four full-time content teachers at the Newcomer Center. We have a counselor, an instructional coach and then we have a couple of staff members that are at other places but are teaching math for us," said Featherstone.
There are five classrooms that serve students enrolled in the Newcomer Center.
"We really try to focus on what's called sheltered instruction, but that basically means using things like visuals, focusing on vocabulary, having a lot of modeling," said Kokoszka. "Using videos, pictures, hands-on learning, project-based learning and then embedding language within that."
"I've learned a lot with Ms. K -- with all of the teachers," said Vergara.
However, students take elective courses with the rest of the high school population, and they are able to join sports and extracurricular activities at Thornton. Students can also attend without concerns over transportation.
"So, if Thornton High School isn't necessarily their boundary school but they are a newcomer student," said Featherstone, "then we're able to provide transportation and we're able to support them through our youth and family advocates to get them here."
Kokoszka says she is grateful to be a part of this new program, but not just because she gets to help teach newcomer students English.
"I think the most rewarding part is working with the students and seeing them build relationships with kids from other places," said Kokoszka.
Right now, the program is only designed for students to take part in for one year, but district leaders hope it gives these newcomers the tools and skills to continue their education in the district.
"We really are proud of the community that we're building here," said Featherstone. "And create[ing] a more diverse and inclusive community for all of us."
For Vergara, the program is already putting her on the path to success in college.
"They've helped me apply," said Vergara. "And they're going to help me look at scholarships and everything, and I'm excited."
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