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Helping newcomers to high school graduation - and beyond

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A common metaphor to explain the role of race, ethnicity and privilege in our country is that while everyone may be competing in the same relay race, everyone is starting from different places on the course. Privileges like social and cultural capital get you a starting spot much closer to the finish, while barriers like learning English as a second language and being the first in your family to attend college may set you further away - something newcomers in our classes face every day. 

When educators understand how these factors impact the opportunities our multilingual students may or may not have access to, they can create systems of support so that all students can cross that finish line.

We were recently joined on Highest Aspirations by Pamela Broussard, who is a passionate keynote speaker, presenter, and high school New Arrival Center teacher from Houston, Texas. She has more than 30 years of teaching experience ranging from elementary to master's degree prep courses. 

Several students from her newcomers class presented at a panel at our most recent Impact Conference, and the passion she has for these students and for her work is as palpable as it is contagious. During our conversation Pamela shares powerful stories, insight and several strategies she uses to engage and empower her new arrivals. 

Here are  four steps for moving newly arrived ELs toward the “finish line”, a concept which she covers in detail in the episode.

Increase newcomers' access to social and cultural capital

Pamela explains her take on Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of social capital, which is what you gain financially by who you know and the opportunities and resources they can connect you to - essentially, the impact of “who you know”. Cultural capital by comparison refers to understanding how various systems work: how to act, how to dress, how to conduct yourself in a particular setting. This isn’t a subtractive model, where one loses their own culture, but rather an additive model where new options and opportunities enrich students’ lives because someone gives you the playbook.

Since our newcomer MLs are likely learning a new culture on top of a new language and are part of families that are new to the country and thus have less connections, it is necessary to take conscious steps to put social and cultural capital in their hands.

“If they know kids that are in the National Honor Society, on the football team, the Science Olympiad… then they get to hear the way those people plan their future. ‘Oh, I've got the SAT on Saturday.’ ‘Oh, we did a trip to Dallas, and then we did a trip to Arkansas with Science Olympiad’, our kids' worlds will open up. They won't just live in their own apartment building,” Pamela explains.

Building relationships with US-born students can be a crucial key that unlocks a world of opportunities and knowledge for these multilingual students. Plus, this exchange of cultural understanding and ideas is beneficial for the US-born students as well.

“When we expose ourselves to more cultures and more concepts and more ideas, and we can flow between different cultural groups, then we have more opportunities throughout our lives,” says Pamela.

Cross the “we/them divide”

Beyond the opportunities this cross-cultural exposure will likely bring our US-born students, it is also key in developing understanding that is missing from news sources that may be primary context for other cultures.

“It's important for the students who were born in the United States to have cross-cultural experiences, so when they hear rhetoric on the news and in the community about people, immigrants, refugees, their reaction is different because ‘that's my friend in third period.’ [It isn’t just this abstract term, the immigrants and refugees without a face or name, it is a real person who matters,” says Pam.

Pamela shares a program that has been successful at her school in crossing this cultural divide: PALS (Peer Assisted Leadership Program). The PALS is a national program where students apply to be mentors. They go to elementary schools and to special education classes  but we thought it would be great for them to be incorporated with our  new arrival students. PALS visit tour  classroom each week or every other week. At first it is to play games and get to know each other. Kids start waving to each other in the hall. Maybe joining for lunch. This helps to quickly break barriers between American students and immigrant students. 

Eventually when trust and relationships are built, the mentoring becomes academic, and perhaps even more importantly, it creates a structured, consistent opportunity for newcomers to be exposed to the social language and the social and cultural capital of a peer. This  accelerates their confidence to integrate more fully into the school system alongside them.

Create opportunities for newcomers to develop as leaders

We know that student engagement in classes and activities is a key step leading to student success.  An even more pivotal point for students, especially multilingual learners, is when they become involved in leadership opportunities. Pamela describes a club called Global Scholars for new arrivals where the second year students plan and lead the monthly events for first year students. Although they tend to struggle initially, by the third or fourth event they begin to grow in confidence and quickly master the skills needed to lead and inspire the group in front of them - and it doesn’t stop there.

Newcomers Leadership Pamela Quote

Too often we accept the narrative that students can’t take on important roles or hold positions in organizations if they aren’t far enough in learning English (similar to the flawed idea that students must learn English at grade level before they can learn any grade level content). Given the opportunities and the proper tools to succeed, these new arrivals rise to the challenge every time and become leaders in the school.

Understand early what it takes to get to the finish line

With these first three steps in place, considerable action has been taken to narrow the gap between where newcomers started on the track in comparison to their peers’ positions in the race. Pamela leaves us with what they will need to get to the finish line - which she defines as being college and career ready. Perhaps the most important takeaway from this conversation is that the first thing we should prioritize with these students is what they will do at the end.

“One of the things you know about poverty, if you've studied poverty, is that it's all about today…So, the idea of long term planning and looking ahead and how do we get there, is not always known, because it's a different way to do it in different cultures, and because nobody in your family may have ever done it before. It's not a practice, if you've lived in poverty, like generational poverty, to work on your long term plan, it's all about survival,” Pamela explains.

Pamela has an activity which she does every year with her 9th grader newcomers to help them begin to think long term and internalize what it will take to finish high school and beyond. At the end of the year, each student presents a speech on what they have to do for the remainder of high school to be ready for college or a job. Not only do they have to research and present their answer, they will sit and hear 15 or 20 of their classmates do the same, so by the end it is ingrained into their memory the key steps and plans they have ahead of them - and help them believe that they are capable of achieving these goals.

Pamela finishes with a story of one of her former newcomer student who followed  each of the steps outlined above - from learning from PALs to leading them - and now has a very successful career.

“He said to me that we told him he was a leader, and no one had ever said that to him before. He said, ‘It changed my life.’ Today he's off doing great things. We've got to plant that vision for the kids, help them see it, because you don't see it when you're in high school. So help them see it, develop it and then support them to reach it.”

Read the full episode transcript here.

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