Adams 12 Introduces Newcomer Center to Provide Students with Graduation Support

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Approximately 23 students across different grades were taking a math quiz on exponents at Thornton High School’s newcomer center one recent Friday afternoon.

The classroom was abuzz with activity as students assisted one another.

“If we’re unsure, it’s okay,” reassured teacher Adria Padilla Chavez. “We can go back and relearn.” She reiterated her instructions in Spanish.

Padilla Chavez and other staff members 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 expands, students are gaining more than just English language skills. They are building friendships with peers from around the world, engaging in their education, and setting themselves on a path towards graduation. It’s opening up new possibilities and dreams they may not have previously envisioned.

“We strive to create a welcoming community where our students feel like they belong,” said Frida Rodriguez, a youth and family advocate at the center. “Having a place where you feel a sense of belonging is incredibly important. Our students connect with staff members who provide them with support, assistance, and love. Feeling truly cared for is vital.”

Seventeen-year-old Joan Madrigal Delgado has been attending the newcomer center for a month, his first experience in a U.S. school. He already senses a positive transformation in his life.

He is impressed by the way teachers guide him, encourage him to think critically, and actively participate in discussions.

“In my country, I never had such opportunities,” said Madrigal Delgado, who immigrated from Cuba. “It feels amazing. Now, I have aspirations for everything.”

He is starting to contemplate college and is considering a career as a veterinarian.

The newcomer center, the first of its kind in Adams 12 Five Star Schools, opened in August with 30 students. Now, a couple of months into the school year, the center has over 90 students. New students enroll each week, and families in the community are spreading the word about the center.

Students attending the center come from various countries, but one of the main reasons for establishing the center was the influx of Afghan refugees arriving in the Thornton area around two years ago. Adams 12 was chosen as one of four school districts to receive a grant from the Rose Community Foundation this year to support education for newcomers, especially those from Afghanistan.

The foundation collaborated with the Colorado Refugee Services Program, a division of the Colorado Department of Human Services, to create the Refugee Integration Fund, which provided the grants.

The district utilized the grant funds, in addition to some federal COVID relief funding, and allocated $868,000 from the general fund to establish the center and cover staffing costs. The center has its own registrar who contacts families referred to her by other schools, inviting them to attend.

Transportation is provided by the district, with approximately 45 students from the newcomer center being bused to the high school. Advocates like Rodriguez, who speaks Spanish, and Imran Khan, who speaks Pashai and Dari, also assist families in accessing community resources.

According to director Manissa Featherstone, one unique aspect of the center is that it has its own counselor dedicated to helping students map out their path to graduation. She explained that many newcomer centers focus solely on teaching English, which often delays students from earning the necessary credits to stay on track for graduation.

At the Thornton High program, students take all their core classes within the center but integrate into the mainstream high school for elective courses or when they require advanced classes. An instructional coach associated with the center tailors support to meet each student’s individual needs.

“We are able to offer those specialized classes,” Featherstone stated. “It depends on the student’s needs and educational background.”

Newcomer Center teacher Aria Padilla Chavez, top center, works on a math quiz with her students. (Andy Cross / The Denver Post)

Furthermore, students have the opportunity to participate in extracurricular activities, clubs, and sports at the high school.

The program has the capacity to accommodate up to 150 students, and it is designed for students to spend one year at the center upon their initial arrival in the U.S. before transitioning to regular high school programming.

Fourteen-year-old Mohammad Ali Dost arrived from Afghanistan a couple of years ago and initially attended a middle school in the district without a dedicated newcomer program. Now, he expresses gratitude for the center as it has significantly improved his English skills.

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

Dost also assists students who speak his native language, Pashai, fostering peer-to-peer learning and interaction, which the staff members celebrate.

Featherstone stated that current students often volunteer to give new students tours and help them become acquainted with their new school.

“We witness students stepping up and saying, ‘I’ll take them,'” Featherstone explained. “They are genuinely excited when a new student arrives.”

The advocates initially teach students the basics, such as how to use lockers. Recently, students also enjoyed learning about homecoming and spirit week.

“Many students were unfamiliar with these events. They didn’t understand the significance of football games,” Rodriguez said. “We showed them videos. They were simply thrilled to have such experiences. They kept saying, ‘I get to go to a dance!'”

Some students also express admiration for the enhanced security measures in U.S. schools, especially compared to environments where they did not always feel safe.

“The schools here are well-prepared,” remarked Madrigal Delgado.

Ismael Piscoya, 17, from Peru, is amazed by the abundance of available technology. Every student in the district, including those at the center, receives a Chromebook.

Piscoya commented that it takes no time to search for information using the Chromebook.

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

“In Mexico, we didn’t have a voice in school,” Guillen shared. Deliberating a future in biotechnology, she is enthusiastic about the educational foundation she is establishing at the center.

“It’s wonderful to have friends from different countries,” Guillen added.

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