Unaccompanied Migrant Teens Have Unique and Profound Needs. One New Orleans Teacher Created a Special School to Help Them
By Beth Hawkins | February 4, 2022
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Julie Norman is leading a conversation about goal-setting with a class of high school students. As she speaks, she writes relevant terms in English on a whiteboard.
“Motivation,” she narrates, marker in hand.
After copying down the word, the teens look it up in the Spanish-English dictionaries that sit on every desk.
These kids know something about the topic. Most fled violence in Central America. Many traveled alone, on foot, to the United States, some with hopes of joining a parent they haven’t seen for years.
The names of the places they came from decorate the wall. Belen, Olancho, Yoro, San Pedro Sula, Puebla, Roatan, Tela, San Salvador.
Norman is a bilingual social worker. It’s her job to help these students simultaneously build new lives and heal the traumas of their journeys. In her lesson, the word “motivation” serves multiple purposes. It’s sophisticated vocabulary. Reading, writing and speaking the word boosts literacy and is constant practice in learning a new language. And it reinforces that as hard as the challenges are, progress is a reason to persist.
The exercise of looking up words and writing them down is part of every activity at Las Sierras Academy, New Orleans’s first formal effort to meet the particular needs of newly arrived immigrant youth. To succeed in high school, these teens must simultaneously perform three challenging tasks: quickly acquire academic skills most U.S. students learned years before, master high school-level content and learn enough English to move to regular classes.
Across the hall, a science class is structured the same way. As the teacher delivers biology lessons, she introduces new words, makes sure students use them repeatedly and helps kids who missed past science instruction backfill academic content.
Most instruction is delivered in English, but students can ask for help in Spanish. Everyone receives individual and group counseling.
Stephanie, 17, walked from Honduras by herself, arriving last spring and ending up in a detention center before being reunited with her father. Among the fears she tried to keep at bay as she made her way north was that she would never learn English. If she couldn’t, the harrowing, lonely trip to the U.S. border would have ended with only dim prospects.
Roberto came from El Salvador with his father two years ago but had no idea school was even an option until a friend told him about Las Sierras, a program launched at the start of the current academic year specifically to aid new arrivals in making a quick transition to high school. (The 74 has agreed not to use students’ last names in this story.)
Housed in a wing of George Washington Carver High School, Las Sierras Academy is open to students who have been in the United States for two years or less and are enrolled at Collegiate Academies. Those who score low on an English-proficiency test are referred to the program by staff at Carver and Collegiate’s other four Louisiana charter high schools, one of which is located in Baton Rouge. Las Sierras offers classes in English, math, science, physical education, social studies and art. Students are eligible to participate for two semesters.
Individual and group counseling are among an array of services Las Sierras provides for students. In addition, there is a group for new mothers, a food pantry, access to a bilingual health clinic and liaisons who help students establish permanent residency.
While English learners often require years of support to thrive in school, unaccompanied minors have special challenges. Often, they have no idea they are eligible to attend school regardless of whether they entered the country legally or speak enough English to participate in a regular classroom. Enrolling in school typically means forgoing paid work that could otherwise help their struggling families. They may have missed years of formal school in their home countries and arrive in the States multiple years behind. If they are teenagers, they have precious little time to catch up if they are to graduate. They can’t wait until they are fluent in English to tackle grade-level academics.
Las Sierras is the brainchild of Emma Merrill, a teacher of both English as a second language and biology. She has served as Collegiate’s director of English language services for six years, a period of time that has seen rapid growth in the number of newly arrived Spanish-speaking youth in the city.
A decade ago, few Louisiana high schools enrolled only slightly more than a handful of English learners. That changed in 2014, when some 68,000 Central American children crossed the U.S. border. An estimated 2,000 ended up in New Orleans, which had a small but mushrooming Latino population and historic ties to Honduras.
Unlike traditional districts, NOLA Public Schools is composed entirely of charter schools. As autonomous programs, each is responsible for deciding how to comply with laws that require equitable access to education for English learners. Individual schools do not report their EL enrollment to the district, but state data shows 7 percent of New Orleans’ 44,000 students are learning English. Most are native Spanish speakers, but a number come from homes where the first language is Vietnamese, Arabic, Mandarin or French.
At Collegiate’s schools, the first wave of unaccompanied minors meant dramatic growth in English learner enrollment. Between 2013 and 2014, the population at Carver rose from 3 percent of students to 9 percent. There was little in the way of services for them, or money to pay for intensive support.
Founded in 2015, Our Voice Nuestra Voz is a grassroots effort to expand educational opportunity for Latinos in New Orleans. A few weeks before the pandemic shuttered schools throughout the city, the group issued a report on gaps in schools’ efforts to serve English learners. Among basic services the group’s parent canvassers found lacking were bilingual staff and materials, often resulting in a near total lack of communication with families.
As the first wave of unaccompanied minors in 2014 and 2015 propelled Merrill to start developing Collegiate’s ESL program, she noticed that her most recently arrived students struggled in a way others didn’t. For starters, many had terrible attendance. When Merrill asked why, teen after teen told her that spending the entire day immersed in English was overwhelming.
So, four years ago, she started researching so-called newcomer programs, small schools or subsets of classrooms where recent arrivals receive intensive help to simultaneously catch up on what might be years of missed academics, confront trauma and learn enough English to move into a traditional classroom.
‘A deeper connection’
Joe Luft will soon retire as executive director of the Internationals Network, a consortium of 30 schools across the U.S. that serve immigrants and refugees. In a typical high school, he explains, most educators are experts in either an academic subject or a specialized service such as counseling.
To be effective, in a newcomer program, staff must be adept at teaching both English and high school-level academics, and ideally have some personal knowledge of students’ likely circumstances, he says: “They have to understand the challenges these students face and know how to interact with their families in a linguistically and culturally appropriate way.”
Often, young migrants are not just supporting themselves or their families financially, but are paying off debt they took on to get to the United States. Many live with people who are not relatives or with kin they don’t actually know.
Because of the short amount of time students have, in a newcomer program, all staff must make sure the same English-language instruction and opportunities for teaching missing academic skills are built into every class and activity. Relationships are key.
“Teachers should work in interdisciplinary teams who have a small cohort of students, so there is a deeper connection,” says Luft. “It has to be a very comprehensive approach.”
In August 2021, with a second wave of teen migrants from Latin America arriving in New Orleans, Las Sierras opened its doors to 25 students — twice as many as Merrill had been working with when COVID-19 hit. The inaugural class mushroomed as word spread among the city’s estimated 700 unaccompanied minors, with one or two new students joining the program each week.
Heading into the holidays, the program enrolled 50 teens, including one French speaker. Eighty percent of Las Sierras’ students are from Honduras, 10 percent from El Salvador and the rest from Guatemala, Nicaragua and other countries. Attendance during the program’s first semester topped 95 percent.
A professor at UC Santa Barbara’s Gevirtz Graduate School of Education, Carolyn Sattin-Bajaj has studied how immigrant students choose schools and has collaborated with New Orleans researchers. The number of hurdles Las Sierras’ students must vault to enroll is considerable, she notes.
Schools in the communities these young people fled may look very different from a large American high school, Sattin-Bajaj points out. A classroom in a village might have students in multiple grades grouped together with a single teacher — who may teach only sporadically.
Unlike youth who come as refugees, with formal legal protection, unaccompanied minors have spent years hiding, first from violence at home and, in the United States, to protect themselves or undocumented family members from drawing attention. Not only do many have no idea they are eligible to attend classes regardless of their legal status, they don’t know that immigration authorities have no right to enter their schools.
“That people feel comfortable taking this risk, this is inspirational,” says Sattin-Bajaj. “These kids really want to go to school.”
To enroll in Las Sierras, they must also vault some additional hurdles. New Orleans uses a computerized lottery to assign students to schools regardless of any unique needs they might have. So newly arrived migrants must apply and be matched with a Collegiate school.
Merrill says 80 percent of her students have posttraumatic stress disorder and 20 percent qualify as having “interrupted formal education,” meaning they have missed at least two years of school.
The goal-setting lesson of Norman’s that so engaged Stephanie’s and Roberto’s class is a good example of how Las Sierras’s small, bilingual staff embeds language instruction in virtually every minute of the day. Each lecture and activity must include practice in four skills: reading, writing, speaking and listening.
As Norman talks, she uses both English and Spanish vocabulary, weaving in the four skills. Along with doses of language and academics, the students are hearing — on repeat — that they can have agency, versus the powerlessness they may have experienced at home.
Indeed, across the hall in Merrill’s biology classroom, every student’s test scores are posted publicly. Starting with a baseline is part of setting reasonable goals, she explains. And meeting them is the definition of motivation.
“It’s good for [youth] to see academic progress to stay invested,” says Merrill. “Tolerance for struggle and risk-taking is something that has to be built for students.”
‘My experience opened the door’
In addition to rapid language acquisition, Las Sierras students have individual graduation plans. Louisiana has one of the strictest high school graduation exams in the country, which English learners frequently struggle to pass.
According to Our Voice Nuestra Voz, the city’s English learners have less than a 36 percent graduation rate. In 2019, before Merrill created Las Sierras, just 24 percent of her newcomers graduated. Many of the students were achieving academically, but without years of experience taking tests or the necessary language proficiency, they were stymied.
“I was a mess, I was crying,” she says. “Most have never seen a bubble sheet.”
As she designed Las Sierras, Merrill built test prep into as many aspects of instruction as possible. Why do Norman’s students use dictionaries to look up words like “motivation,” instead of Google Translate or apps on their phones? Because they are allowed to use them during some of the state exams.
Collegiate’s schools use an English-proficiency assessment that has five levels. The minimum fluency required to pass Louisiana’s high school graduation test, in Merrill’s experience, is around level three. Students who get there before their time in Las Sierras ends can choose to return to conventional English learner services.
The constraints of COVID-era education inadvertently added evidence that the exit exam does not necessarily reflect whether a student merits a diploma. With schools closed in spring 2020, the tests were not administered. Every newcomer graduated that year. Citywide, the rate jumped to 54 percent.
Last year, the state allowed Collegiate’s English learners who did not pass the test the option to take and pass 20 extra hours of instruction. Again, all graduated.
Encouraged by the experiment, Merrill recently asked state education officials to authorize an alternate path to a diploma. Under her proposed Expanded Criteria for English Learners in Louisiana, or EXCELL Graduation Pathway, students will still be required to pass required classes and take the graduation test. But those who fail the exam and were first identified as English learners after sixth grade can compile a portfolio of work that shows their knowledge meets state academic standards and that they are on track toward language proficiency.
Merrill met with Louisiana Superintendent Cade Brumley and members of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, who asked her to spearhead getting support from officials in other parts of the state. Her coalition includes the Orleans Parish School Board, national policy group The Education Trust and Our Voice Nuestra Voz.
Thanks to the latter group’s efforts, New Orleans schools receive 30 percent more money for each English learner and more than double for newcomers. Still, Las Sierras still needs additional funding. To date, Collegiate has simply swallowed the cost of hiring extra bilingual staff, keeping class sizes small and providing intensive mental health services. But Merrill recently learned that The City Fund had awarded the program a three-year grant.
Next up on her wish list: a Spanish-speaking special education teacher.
As for Stephanie and Roberto, halfway into the school year, both reported that their fear of not learning English to navigate their new home has vanished. Roberto has made a lot of friends among Carver’s U.S.-born students and gets lots of English practice talking to them.
After just six months in the U.S., Stephanie has an impressive command of the language that ranges from the practical — “May I go to the bathroom?” “Can you help me?” “Do you have a charger?” — to the inspirational.
“There are people here who can extend a hand and help you meet your goals, who can take away the pain,” she says. “My experience opened the door and gave me the opportunity to use my voice.”
Disclosure: The City Fund provides financial support to The 74.