Adams 12’s first newcomer center offers students support and a path to graduation

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
A Colorado school bus, Arapahoe County prosecutors on Friday filed an additional 10 charges against a Littleton Public Schools bus aide who they allege repeatedly physically abused non-verbal autistic kids.

About 23 students from mixed grades were taking a math quiz on exponents at the newcomer center at Thornton High School one recent Friday afternoon.

The class was buzzing. Students were helping each other.

“If we’re not sure, it’s OK,” teacher Adria Padilla Chavez assured her students. “We go back and relearn.” Then she repeated her instructions in Spanish.

Padilla Chavez and other staffers at the newcomer center work to help students who are new to the country adjust to life in an American high school. As the program grows, students are gaining much more than English lessons. They’re making friends from around the world, engaging in their learning, and getting on a path to graduation. It’s helping them dream of futures they might not have imagined before.

“We like to welcome our students into a community where they feel like they belong,” said Frida Rodriguez, a youth and family advocate at the center. “It’s so important to have a place where you know you belong. They connect with staff that provide them a sense of help and support and love. Truly feeling loved is really important.”

Seventeen-year-old Joan Madrigal Delgado has been a student at the newcomer center for a month, his first experience in a U.S. school. He already feels his life changing.

He’s impressed by how teachers help him, and ask him to think and participate in discussions.  

“I really didn’t have any possibilities in my country,” said Madrigal Delgado, who came from Cuba. “It feels good. Now I aspire to everything.”

He’s starting to think about college and considering a career as a veterinarian.

The newcomer center, the first in Adams 12 Five Star Schools, opened in August with 30 students. Now, a couple months into the school year, the center has more than 90 students, with new students enrolling every week and families spreading the word in the community. 

The students come from many countries, but one of the main drivers for the development of the center was the influx of refugees arriving from Afghanistan around two years ago. Many live in the Thornton area around the high school.

Adams 12 was one of four school districts to receive a grant from the Rose Community Foundation this year to help support education for newcomers, particularly from Afghanistan. 

The foundation worked with the Colorado Refugee Services Program — a unit within the Colorado Department of Human Services — to set up the Refugee Integration Fund, which gave away the grants.

The district used that money, along with some federal COVID relief money, and pulled $868,000 from the general fund to start up the center and pay for staff. The center has its own registrar, who calls families flagged to her by other schools and invites them to attend. 

The district is offering transportation. About 45 of the newcomer center students get bused to the high school. And advocates like Rodriguez, who speaks Spanish, and Imran Khan, who speaks Pashai and Dari, also help families find resources in the community. 

One unique feature of the center, says director Manissa Featherstone, is that it has its own counselor to help students map their way to graduation. She said many newcomer centers focus on teaching students English, and sometimes that means delaying classes that would earn them the credits required to get on track to graduate.

At the Thornton High program, students take all their core classes within the center, but are integrated into the mainstream high school for elective classes, or when they need a more advanced class. An instructional coach who works for the center helps customize the help for students.

“We’re able to provide those classes,” Featherstone said. “It just depends on the individual student’s needs and what schooling they’ve had.”

Students also participate in extracurricular activities, clubs, and sports at the high school.

The program can accommodate up to 150 students, Featherstone said. It’s designed so that students spend a year there after they first arrive in the U.S., and then move on to regular high school programming.

Mohammad Ali Dost, 14, arrived from Afghanistan a couple of years ago, and was initially attending a middle school in the district without a dedicated newcomer program. Now at the center, he said he’s happy it’s helped him improve his English. 

Dost said he tells other students: “If you want to improve your English quickly, come to the newcomer center.” 

Dost also helps students who speak his home language of Pashai, the kind of peer-to-peer learning and interaction that staffers celebrate.

Featherstone said current students often volunteer to give new students tours and to help familiarize them with their new school. 

“We see students jumping in and saying. ‘I’ll take them,’” Featherstone said. “They’re really excited when a student arrives.”

The advocates teach students the basics at first, like how to use a locker. Recently students also enjoyed learning about homecoming and spirit week.

“A lot of students had no idea what it was. What was the big deal about the football game?” Rodriguez said. “We showed them videos. They were just excited to have that experience. They kept saying, ‘I get to go to a dance.’”

Some students also say they’re impressed by the security of schools in the U.S., having come from other environments where they didn’t always feel safe.

“They’re very prepared,” Madrigal Delgado said.

Ismael Piscoya, 17, from Peru, said he’s amazed at the amount of technology available. All students in the district, not just the center, get a Chromebook.

It takes no time to look up information, Piscoya said. 

Maria Fernanda Guillen, 18, from Mexico, said she feels empowered in her education.

“In Mexico, we didn’t have a voice in school,” Guillen said. Now thinking about a future in biotechnology, she’s excited about the start she’s getting at the center.

“It’s nice to have friends from other countries,” she said.

Yesenia Robles is a reporter for Chalkbeat Colorado covering K-12 school districts and multilingual education. Contact Yesenia at [email protected].

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.