As school winds down at Oakland International High School (OIHS) in Oakland, California, a section of campus sparks with the blustery chatter of young adults warming up their shots on a small turf soccer pitch—occasionally punctuated by the bitter clank of a ball off a goalpost. As more students wander to the field, a few pickup games break out. Coaches set up cones and sort players using an enormous bag of neon pinnies. It’s showtime for Soccer Without Borders, one of OIHS’ popular afterschool programs.

On the surface, the twice-a-week practices are mostly routine—windsprints, stretching, drills, mini-games—but they serve larger projects: fostering a sense of belonging for OIHS students, connecting students with resources to support their academic success, and helping to develop social skills and social capital. Practice begins with an opening circle, where coach Eric Cortez leads a team discussion about “patience,” both on the field and off.

OIHS’ students are all newcomer immigrants to the United States, with roots in thirty-five different countries and speaking nearly as many languages at home. The campus, founded in 2007, is one of the country’s oldest secondary schools focused on meeting newcomers’ needs. This depth of institutional history makes OIHS a particularly valuable exemplar for educators and schools across the country who aim to better support their newcomer students.

A National Opportunity

For as long as there have been formal U.S. schools, immigrant students from around the world have come to enroll. Throughout the twentieth century, laws and court decisions have established the right of immigrant youth to a free education regardless of citizenship status and guidelines for ensuring that students learning English received adequate language instruction.

Immigration patterns have also changed over the years. While many immigrant youth of the early twentieth century hailed from Europe, the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act introduced a change in demographics for the immigrant population—and the United States—in subsequent decades. In particular, the law increased the number of immigrants from Asia and the Pacific Islands as well as Latin America and the Caribbean. More recently, domestic policies such as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals as well as global conflicts and climate disasters have further impacted the makeup of U.S. classrooms, resulting in significant growth in the immigrant student population in just the past two decades. Indeed, while there were just over 700,000 immigrant students enrolled in schools across the United States in the 2012–13 school year, that number grew to nearly 1.2 million by 2019–20.

Today, as ever, newcomers—generally understood as K–12 students born outside the United States who are within their first few years of attending U.S. schools—come from all over the world, speak a plethora of languages, and bring new rich perspectives to their peers and new communities. As new arrivals continue to disperse far beyond the big cities of the coasts and southern border states, districts in more rural, middle-America states should take the opportunity to adjust their programming to welcome and support these new students so that they can thrive alongside their American-born peers.

Community School Services—In a Pandemic

Naturally, the pandemic disrupted OIHS at least as much as any other school. “There was a lot of stress on students and families,” says OIHS community school manager Madenh Hassan, “Being in a new country—and isolated by language and culture—was further exacerbated by being isolated in your home.”

Brute economic forces created further challenges. A Learning Policy Institute report found that fully 40 percent of OIHS students work full time, and another 40 percent were “working part time or had primary responsibility for taking care of younger siblings.” Many OIHS students and/or their family members were unable to qualify for some pandemic relief resources because of their legal status in the United States. So as the pandemic stretched into months, administrators said, many OIHS students sought additional work to make ends meet, which often came at a cost to their engagement with schoolwork.

The school responded with as comprehensive a response as possible. For years, OIHS has used partnerships with local organizations to engage newcomer students and provide them with holistic community school supports, including access to health care, food, legal support, housing assistance, technology, and more. Naturally, when the crisis hit, school administrators relied on those relationships.

“We shut down on Friday,” says Sailaja Suresh, a former OIHS administrator who has since taken a role at the district, “[and] we had food sites ready on Monday.” The International Rescue Committee’s Zack Reidman, who manages the school’s food security program, says that the school distributed hundreds of thousands of pounds of food over the first several years of the pandemic. Indeed, within days, the school was distributing an even wider range of necessities, including clothing, diapers, and pet food. Some teachers sought out training so they could help students’ families apply for unemployment benefits.

Suresh says that the pandemic heightened the stakes of their English-language development program; OIHS students and families navigating the pandemic’s uncertainty were in greater need of “survival English” than ever. Teachers and noninstructional staff made lists of students they would call regularly during the height of the pandemic, and these check-ins became language lessons in themselves, modeling for students how to ask and answer questions about challenges they were facing.

Before the pandemic, campus case managers worked with individual newcomer students to figure out what they needed to reengage with school and succeed. But now, says Lauren Markham, OIHS’ former community school manager and a co-director of the campus’ Learning Lab, “the community school aspect of our school is more like in the bones of everybody.”

Returning to—and Redefining—Normal

Students’ needs didn’t entirely ease when school reopened. Markham says that it’s been complicated to rebuild the school’s community after years of crisis. For instance, the school’s afterschool tutoring program attracted fifty or sixty students daily before the pandemic. During winter 2023, it was down to closer to ten students daily. The school provides a small stipend to make afterschool attendance financially viable for OIHS students, but Markham says it can’t compete with the hourly rate at many jobs: “We’re not paying $15 an hour.”

But students’ post-pandemic challenges go beyond economics. Like many U.S. children—not just newcomers—at this stage in the country’s pandemic recovery, OIHS students are still relearning how to feel comfortable on campus. Teachers and non-teaching staff alike are spending more time and energy on connecting students with the services and supports they need. As students’ mental health challenges overwhelmed the school, some staff helped start student affinity groups. There’s a group for Mam speakers, another for Arab-speaking students, one for Afghan students, and others. These groups aim to provide students with chances to connect around their shared identities and interests—and to help them find a healthy social place for themselves on campus.

Young OIHS staff members such as case manager Ricardo Jaramillo play a key role in supporting student belonging. Ricardo moved from Providence, Rhode Island to Oakland, California to work on youth leadership and empowerment. During a conversation with OIHS students and visiting researchers, one student mentions his passion for graphic designing—Ricardo pulls at his own shirt, saying, “He designed this sweater! He’s a graphic designer. Very talented.” Earlier in the school year, Vivian, a newcomer from Mexico, told Ricardo about harassment that girls were facing at the school. He encouraged her to do something about it. This was a surprise to Vivian, who felt like she couldn’t speak up based on her previous experience in Mexico, “What? We can actually do something?” she remembered saying. She continued: “[Here] they actually listen to you. They are really patient, [which] makes you feel super comfortable at school.”

That feeling of belonging is critical for all students—particularly newcomers, and particularly coming out of the pandemic. Indeed, as schools struggled to reengage students last fall, Soccer Without Borders secured a local grant aimed at helping schools combat chronic absenteeism. Soccer Without Borders founder Ben Gucciardi says that many kids were struggling to reliably return to campus: “School is just not perceived as being very fun right now.” But the prospect of serious, biweekly soccer training helps keep many OIHS students engaged. It also provides adults at OIHS with another touch point for checking on students’ wellbeing. Soccer Without Borders coaches conduct home visits, connect students with social services, and refer them for additional support from other community partner organizations.

At a school as diverse as OIHS, soccer can be a bridge connecting students across linguistic, cultural, and ethnic lines of difference. “You really do build a close relationship with your teammates and your coach,” says Gucciardi. “They’re really motivated to learn English because they want to be able to communicate with their teammates and they’re motivated to learn about each other’s culture.”

Structures and Resources Supporting Newcomer Engagement

A robust community schools model like OIHS’ doesn’t come cheap, so the school has had to grow its approach through more than a decade of relationship-building, organizational partnerships, and fundraising efforts. In addition to local grants such as the one arranged by Soccer Without Borders and by other nonprofit organizations, OIHS is receiving a portion of the Oakland Unified School District’s $67 million community schools grant from the California Department of Education.

While the community schools model is nothing new, the past several years have brought meaningful new public investments that can make it more feasible for more schools to explore. Further, many local and state leaders are investing federal pandemic recovery funding in positions and programs aimed at supporting children’s engagement at school, as well as their social and emotional wellbeing. Oakland devoted $12 million of its federal American Recovery Plan Act funds toward positions supporting community school sites, and put millions of the remaining dollars toward tutoring, afterschool programming, student attendance supports, and case management for struggling students.

Even in the absence of structured community schools investments or grants for providing social services, however, schools and educators can find ways to support students’ social and emotional wellbeing. At OIHS, affinity groups, clubs, and soccer provide opportunities to center students’ social development as part of a common activity with peers. These kinds of activities—during or after school—help newcomers connect with diverse global peers seeking a place to belong in U.S. schools.

In the wake of the pandemic, almost all students are searching for a sense of belonging in school, whether they were born in the United States or not. Fortunately, strategies like those followed at OIHS are best practices for everyone. Schools can work flexibly to prioritize the full range of obstacles that students currently face, from academic challenges to social, emotional, and health difficulties. While many policymakers have developed more interest in funding community school partnerships and services, some of these efforts can be replicated without significant new resources. In particular, extracurricular groups, clubs, affinity groups, and the like hold particular promise for helping children rebuild their sense of belonging on campus.

As the shadows stretch to a chilly sunset at OIHS, coaches hustle between practice groups, warning players that their muscles will cool if they don’t get moving. The drills gradually give way to a raucous game, with coaches, students, and volunteers cycling in and out after each goal. Good natured trash talking is constant—and multilingual, in English, Spanish, and a handful of other languages—particularly when a student dribbles through a coach. “We think about it as like, ‘How can we help all of them both stay in school [and] kind of take the next step in their lives, figure out what they want to do after,’” says Gucciardi. “The sign of a healthy educational ecosystem is one in which adults are connecting around students and working to support each other.”

Header image: Oakland International High School website homepage.