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Newcomer Program Helps Ease Transition for Students, Families

Ryan LaBudda classKalamazoo Public Schools wants to ensure that the children of immigrant families who find themselves in Southwest Michigan are given the tools they need to succeed in school and in the community. 

Last year, the school district launched its Newcomer Program, which helped about 150 K-12 students. Services for students in the Newcomer Program were housed at Lincoln International Studies School, Milwood Magnet School: A Center for Math, Science and Technology, and Phoenix High School. 

“The concept is to get them in a transitional environment with enough support academically, socially and culturally, so they can improve their language and build an understanding of the educational system,” said Wessam Abdelaziz, the coordinator of English as a Second Language and World Languages. “We also want them to understand the expectations and rules before going to mainstream content classes.” 

Students can spend anywhere from a few weeks to a few months in the program, with the students’ needs being assessed when they go through intake with their sponsoring organizations, such as Samaritas or Bethany Christian Services. 

Both organizations are expecting the arrival of about 200 new families this fall, mostly from Ukraine, Afghanistan, Africa and the Middle East. KPS maintains close contact with caseworkers so the district can have adequate numbers of translators and understand the needs of the families who will, at the most basic level, need information about the academic calendar, transportation, and attendance policies. 

“Our Newcomer Centers are a districtwide commitment to the success of students, providing a supportive environment that helps them ease into the excitement and challenges of a new learning environment. Providing encouragement and support for the rest of the family helps ensure we are building a stronger community, which is one of the purposes of education,” said Superintendent Dr. Rita Raichoudhuri. 

Creating the centers allowed the district to concentrate its support efforts and make its transition services more effective, Raichoudhuri said. 

Students bring a wealth of educational experiences with them — with some having strong English skills from their time in private schools in their home countries and some students having never attended school.

In the Newcomer Centers, students study English as a Second Language and get acclimated to the American educational system. In addition to their classes in the center, they are mainstreamed into specials such as art, music and physical education with students of the same age so they can begin building connections to their grade-level groups. 

“It’s a gradual release program,” Abdelaziz said. “When they are released to their mainstream classes, we don’t just release them. We have to have strong communication with the mainstream teacher, do assessments, make sure they understand the concepts being taught in the classroom. 

arian homayun“For instance in English Language Arts and math, we might review the concepts with their Newcomer teacher before they are introduced to the concepts with their mainstream teacher.” 

The Newcomer Program serves not just the students but their families as well, offering ESL classes that ran twice a week last year. KPS also helped with transportation to the classes and offered free childcare during class. 

“The feedback from parents was that they want it five days a week,” he said. “Not only did it help with language but it provided them with the opportunity to bond with their peers. In one of the evaluations, a parent wrote, ‘We feel it’s a small community.’ That was awesome to hear.” 

The program also works hard to help parents integrate into the KPS community as employees. When families first meet with Abdelaziz and other members of the ESL team, they take time to talk to them about their previous work experience and what kind of employment they may be interested in doing. 

Staff members have successfully placed parents in jobs with food service and as paraprofessionals within the Newcomer Program. “These parents really want to be a part of the community and to be a part of KPS,” he said. 

Abdelaziz said he stands by a statement he made when he joined KPS last year: People need to realize that the diversity these families offer to the district and to the community is a strength. 

“There is a lot they can contribute,” he said. “One of our jobs is to understand the barriers that exist for them and to remove those barriers.

Top cutline: Ryan LaBudda leads a Newcomer Center class at Kalamazoo Central High School.

Bottom cutline: Arian Homayun, left, recently immigrated to Kalamazoo with his family. He now works as a paraprofessional for KPS.