Virginia high school gets a boost for some of its neediest immigrant students

When Jessica Milliken arrived at J.E.B. Stuart High School in 2015 to head a program for recent arrivals to the United States, many of the students she helped oversee had left school in the sixth grade and spoke little or no English, having fled violence and instability in their homelands.

At least two of these students — who, at age 17, should have been high school seniors — were setting foot in a classroom for the first time at the Fairfax County school. Like many recent immigrants, they spoke no English, but they also were illiterate, unable to read even in their native Spanish.

Milliken, who was brought on to oversee the county’s first “newcomer academy,” began tutoring them, teaching them the alphabet and how to trace letters.

“I was baffled,” Milliken said of the two students from Guatemala. One, a girl, had to work on a farm from a young age. The other, a boy, was from a rural part of the Central American country with few schools. “We can’t ignore these kids. We have to do something to facilitate their learning,” Milliken said.

Now, Stuart High is getting a $50,000 grant from Virginia to help teachers develop curriculum for its most challenged immigrant students, young people who may have the drive and the capacity to learn but have major academic gaps.

The innovation grant, which Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) announced in late June, will be used to pay teachers to develop a curriculum for basic literacy and numbers skills. It will also help teachers build on an existing course called “Strategies for Success,” which helps students adjust to school and life in the United States, teaching them everything from study skills and how to write an email to how to open a bank account.

Nearly one-third of the roughly 2,100 students at Stuart High are English-language learners. Fairfax County Public Schools started the newcomer academy at the school in response to guidance from the U.S. Department of Justice on education for such students.

The academy, begun in fall 2015, changed the way English-language learners were assimilated into the school. Rather than leaving them in language development courses — which do not count toward graduation requirements — the school retooled core course, such as freshman English and government, for English-language learners so they could begin earning high school credit even if they were not fluent.

Several other schools have adopted the model.

The new program aimed to help older students — who might need to work to support their families — get to graduation faster. With the grant, educators also hope to offer more basic literacy and math classes for students and more workforce training, perhaps connecting students with internship and work opportunities.

Principal Penny Gros said the goal is to get students engaged quickly.

Many newcomers are prone to drop out because they need to make money to support their families here and in their home countries. Some students work nights and attend classes during the day.

“Obviously, the old model of education is not working for students who are coming with these kinds of unique needs,” said Gros. “How do we meet those students where they are and increase their literacy and numeracy skills for the workplace?”

The grant is part of McAuliffe’s broader goal of retooling high school education to help meet the needs of the workforce. The governor hopes to rewrite graduation requirements to allow students more flexibility to take career and technical education courses.

“As we work to make education relevant for the 21st century, we must continue to align scholastic programs with the needs of local businesses and provide our young people with the skills they need to be both academically and professionally successful,” Virginia Education Secretary Dietra Trent said in a news release.

Gros said the influx of newcomers has created an urgent need to remake the curriculum. From January to March, Stuart High enrolled 100 students who had been in the United States for less than a month. Last school year, the high school had 300 students in the most basic level of English instruction.

“If we can develop a curriculum that’s really targeted to their needs . . . it’s going to be much greater than sticking them in a class that’s not designed with their needs in mind,” Gros said.

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