New Mexico is under court order to better serve at-risk students, including English language learners. This spring marked a shift in Albuquerque Public Schools’ approach to the hundreds of refugees and recent immigrants in the district.
Brandon Baca is head of the school district's newly revamped newcomer supports program. He told KUNM his first priority on the job was to build stronger relationships with community organizations that serve refugees across Albuquerque.
BACA: And pretty quickly we were able to devise a strategy. So since August, we’ve hired three case managers. All of them are refugees themselves and are multilingual, and as a team we speak about 12 languages.
Secondly, we’ve hired four specialists. Specialists are a lot like an educational assistant. All of them are, again, multilingual. One specialist is based at Highland High School, another is based at Van Buren Middle School, a third specialist is based at La Mesa Elementary, and the fourth is working with multiple schools currently, primarily Del Norte High School and Lowell Elementary.
KUNM: Students who’ve recently migrated to the U.S. may have left unstable home countries; they may have had interrupted schooling. What’s it like for those students to enter a setting where they don’t share a language or cultural background with most of their peers?
BACA: So for instance, we do have students who come in, and they’re 16-17 years old, so they’re at a high school level, but have a second grade education, due to that interrupted formal education. So it’s really challenging for them to access the material, because they’re not only learning the language, just colloquial language, but they’re also trying to learn academic language.
Socially, too, it can be a challenge for students, but I’m pretty amazed at how quickly kids really find groups they really identify with, especially around soccer and other sports. They quickly make friends and are extremely resilient kids. It’s pretty impressive.
KUNM: You and your team visited an international high school in Oakland this year, and you’re in the process of studying what immigrant and refugee students need at APS. What have you learned about the best ways to structure a successful program for those students?
BACA: There are a lot of things that need to happen in order to equitably serve newcomers and immigrants and refugees. For one, refugees and immigrants do come with a lot of background in past exposure to trauma, and we need to be cognizant of that and make sure that our teachers are well-informed on how to serve students that have experienced that type of trauma.
We certainly need to be training our teachers to make sure that they understand how to structure content-oriented classes to the needs of English language learners, making sure that they can still sit in a science class and know what’s going on in the classroom.
So the Internationals Network – it’s a network of 28 schools throughout the United States – one important perspective they have is that every teacher is a language teacher. So if you’re a science teacher, you’re still teaching English. All of those students in those classrooms are immigrants and refugees, so those teachers are absolute experts in that area and are able to tailor those lessons to ensure the students are able to access the material.
KUNM: I spoke with a parent from Afghanistan last summer who would have loved to enroll her son in the newcomer program at La Mesa Elementary, but she couldn’t make it work because they lived just outside of the La Mesa school bus boundaries. What is APS doing to make it easier for people to get their kids to your programs?
BACA: Transportation is a big challenge in Albuquerque in general, and I think particularly for these families. Currently, with our newcomer program at La Mesa, we do provide transportation from one specific neighborhood that’s far away, it’s outside the [La Mesa] district, where we have a concentration of refugee families. We are currently working with the transportation department to find other solutions to offer transportation throughout the city, and that’s an ongoing discussion.
In Albuquerque, we do have a few areas of town where we do have concentrations of a lot of the refugee families in particular, however, a lot of Spanish-speaking immigrants are spread out throughout the city. So we really need to think creatively and innovatively to make sure we’re making programs accessible to all students that need the supports.
Support for KUNM’s Public Health New Mexico project comes from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the McCune Charitable Foundation, and from KUNM listeners like you.