Like most schools, the front door at Louisville, Kentucky’s Newcomer Academy has a doorbell with a sign that reads “push button.” But that instruction is followed by a Spanish translation, presionar el boton; followed by the Swahili translation, bonzeya kitufe; followed by the Somali translation, kanda buto; followed by the Vietnamese translation, nut an; followed by the French translation, bouton poussoir; followed by the Arabic translation, اضغط الزر.

So why so many translations?

Doorbell at Newcomer Academy in Louisville, Kentucky

Newcomer Academy is a K–12 school of over 900 students, nearly all of whom are recent immigrants to the United States. Not only are they all newcomers, but also they come from a wide range of countries, from Honduras to Syria to Rwanda. Walking through the hallways, you may see a group of four students from Cuba speaking to each other in Spanish about their excitement to make lemonade in Ms. Lewis’s class or two students talking in Swahili about what’s for lunch today. You may even see two friends who speak different languages conversing with each other through Google Translate.

Jefferson County Public Schools launched Newcomer Academy for 300 students in 2012 with the goal of maximizing district resources. The model aims to provide newcomers with grade-level academic content and appropriate supports in one consolidated building instead of spreading these services across the district. Over the past eleven years, the school’s enrollment has tripled.

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When the COVID-19 pandemic struck in 2020, causing school campus closures nationwide, Newcomer Academy was faced with an enormous challenge. All schools were scrambling to adapt to new technology and to ensure they supported students’ academic progress as well as mental health. But Newcomer Academy had to do this with a student body that spoke twenty-five different languages and came from just as many different cultures. So not only did educators have to adapt to new technology and ensure students’ academic progress and mental well-being, but they also needed to overcome linguistic and cultural barriers while ensuring their diverse group of immigrant students was adjusting to a new country.

When Principal Gwen Snow learned about the new challenges Newcomer Academy would face due to the pandemic, she asked herself a question that many principals across the country likely asked themselves: “How are we going to do this?”

So how did they do it? How did a school with the unique responsibility of working with exclusively newcomer students attack this many-layered challenge?

Collaborating with Community-Based Organizations

Community-based organizations (CBOs) are a vital and trusted resource for newcomer families, providing culturally and linguistically appropriate support for access to education, housing, and work. As such, Newcomer Academy leadership already understood the value of CBOs in immigrant communities before the pandemic. So naturally, they teamed up with these immigrant-focused CBOs to better serve their newly arrived students during the pandemic.

During the pandemic, when Newcomer Academy teachers couldn’t go inside students’ houses or even meet with families at the school because of restrictions, they contacted refugee-focused organizations for help. “We could contact a liaison at Kentucky Refugee Ministries if we needed to get, say, someone to show a family how to sign in on the computer,” says Snow.

The valuable support given by CBOs didn’t stop at academics. The school also leaned on CBOs to support children and their families holistically. For example, La Casita is an agency that began over ten years ago, evolving from work done by the local Center for Women and Children. During the pandemic, La Casita became a haven for newcomers, especially families in need of more support due to abuse, neglect, or just not having enough resources. La Casita ensured students’ families received the help they needed through the troubling times, from legal services to counseling, a food pantry, and finding housing for families.

Newcomer Academy could have tried to support students alone—but partnerships with CBOs were a much better way to bridge the physical (and often cultural and linguistic) distance between teachers and their students.

New Student Orientations Creating a Welcoming Environment

Many students enrolled at Newcomer Academy during the pandemic had never attended school in the United States. As a result, they were often fearful, nervous, and confused—all while trying to navigate a new system. For a school full of newcomers, a welcoming environment is essential. It’s like having somebody enter your home for the first time—you want to make them feel genuinely comfortable and welcome. So when the pandemic eased, and children emerged from prolonged social isolation to return to in-person learning, Newcomer Academy took a structured approach to alleviate their students’ unique challenges—a welcoming strand.

When students enroll at Newcomer Academy, at any point of the year, they now enter a one-week welcoming strand. In these welcome strands, students receive a computer, are taught how to log into Google Classroom, learn how to use transportation to get to school, receive their student ID, and more. Across the country, this sort of dedicated time to prepare students to navigate their schools is rare, especially for newcomers who may enter the school year after the standard beginning–of–year new student orientation has already finished. Not only are students welcomed to the school and community with the one-week welcoming strand at any point of the school year, but they are also welcomed by their fellow classmates who have already undergone the welcoming strand.

One distinct feature of Newcomer Academy is that while it provides students with excellent instruction in subject materials, it also emphasizes becoming model citizens. Walking down the hallway, you can hear students in different tongues saying “Hi, good morning” to anybody they see walking down the hall. As a visitor, it is striking how often students will greet somebody they’ve never met before. Their greetings reflect the overall welcoming environment Newcomer Academy has created and, more so, reflect the foundation of a welcoming environment established in the welcoming strand.

Newcomer Staff Serving Newcomer Students

Empathy is often described as putting yourself into someone else’s shoes. For teachers at Newcomer Academy, empathy comes a bit easier than in most newcomer schools since many of the teachers were also newcomers at some point. Teachers at Newcomer Academy come from various countries, including Puerto Rico, Cuba, Ghana, and others. Many of these teachers came to the school through a local grow-your-own teacher development program where they spent a year as a classroom assistant before getting their state certification to have their own classroom. Many teachers are professionals in their home country who came to the United States seeking better opportunities.

One example is María, who works at the front desk. Anyone sitting in the lobby for fifteen minutes will see the front door opening and closing constantly as parents come in with questions about some form of paperwork. María handles this gracefully, assuring parents that she is there to help. A lawyer in her home country of Cuba, María is transitioning from the front desk to a classroom teacher, and the school is working with her to ensure it happens.

The school also recruits teachers from abroad. For example, one teacher recruited from Puerto Rico described his experience of being met at the airport upon his arrival to Louisville by Principal Snow. He said teaching in the United States was an unexpected option, but he is glad he took it. Since he arrived at Newcomer Academy, he has prioritized creating a warm environment for students (several came up to him during our brief talk).

Studies show that learning experiences with diverse teachers can have real advantages for diverse students. Similar to classrooms where students share the same race or ethnicity as their teacher, newcomer students can feel a unique sense of comfort and belonging knowing that their educators share the distinct experience of relocating to a new country.

Lessons for School Leaders and Policymakers

Any school’s success with newcomer students starts by viewing them as capable and looking at their available resources. At Newcomer Academy, school leaders realize the cultural and linguistic knowledge local immigrant adults can provide as teachers. They recognize the stronghold established by CBOs in the community with their students. And they realize that newcomers can be some of the most welcoming students one will ever meet when they feel welcomed.

Snow encourages other school leaders to focus on the assets newcomers bring with them: “Look for what they bring. If you don’t see it, look harder and ask more questions.”

She also advocates for increased resources for newcomer support and comprehensive teacher training to ensure equitable access to quality education: “More funding for English Learner support and schools, and more training for teachers will help students access the same instruction as everyone else.”

By investing in both adequate resources for newcomer students and targeted training for educators and school leaders, policymakers can contribute significantly to creating an inclusive educational landscape that supports the diverse needs of newcomers in all schools.

Scott Wade, English teacher at Newcomer Academy and a semifinalist for the Kentucky Department of Education 2021 Kentucky Teacher of the Year, says that sometimes when he’s running around the classroom frantically trying to help his students, they say, “cálmate” (calm down) and to that, he looks them in the eye with a smirk and says, “imposible” (impossible).

Newcomer Academy is an exemplar of how schools can effectively support newcomers and shows no sign of stopping any time soon.

Header image: Newcomer Academy Twitter / X