People in virtual meeting shown in boxes

International Academies Help Newcomer Students Succeed

People in virtual meeting shown in boxes

(Screenshot captured by Samantha Kennedy / The CC Pulse)

By Samantha Kennedy

Newcomer students — those who are new to the U.S. — have often been underserved in education, but their increasing success in the West Contra Costa Unified School District shows the district is doing something right.

That “something right” is the International Newcomer Academies at three district schools. The academies were applauded for students’ progress at the school board’s Wednesday meeting.

They have cohorts at Richmond High, Kennedy High and Helms Middle and boasted a 100% graduation rate when the program was reestablished after COVID. It hasn’t dropped below 90% since its first class of graduates.

“Having an academy where newcomers feel seen is important and humanizing for our students that are navigating life in a new country,” one Richmond High history teacher for newcomers wrote.

The graduation rate for newcomers at the International Academies exceeds the overall rate for English learners in the district. State data in 2023 shows that 70% of the district’s English learners graduated, making the group one of the lowest-performing populations overall. Newcomers participating in the International Academies that same year graduated at a 92% rate.

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The academies are made up of English learners who arrived in the U.S. within the last two years and give them “access to a quality school education … thereby opening doors to the American Dream.” Over 300 newcomer students participate in the three academies, with many coming from countries like Egypt, El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico and the Philippines.

Newcomer students say an important part of the program is more than just academics.

“Being in the academy is like being in a family,” one Richmond High senior wrote. “It’s a small program, so the teachers can easily check in with students to see how they’re feeling.”

Many newcomers in the district, similar to the state’s overall newcomer population, are Spanish-speaking, but students speaking other languages still build bonds despite the language barrier.

“I’m shy, and I was afraid of my first day at Richmond High. The people around me were all new people,” another Richmond High senior wrote. “Most of them spoke Spanish, but I speak Tagalog, and I didn’t have anyone to speak it with. Now, I have learned some Spanish words and have made friends.”

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The academies are part of a network of programs through the nonprofit Internationals Network for Public Schools that has served newcomer students since 2004 in California, New York, New Jersey and Washington, D.C. The first implementation of the program at WCCUSD schools was at Richmond High in 2018. The program expanded in 2019 to Helms and became the first program of its kind at the middle school level.

Elementary school newcomer resources, however, are unconnected to the Internationals model, and board members say they worry younger newcomers aren’t being properly supported.

“I think that us not having a newcomer program in elementary school is failing a lot of students,” said clerk Demetrio Gonzalez-Hoy, who was an English language learner himself after his family moved from Mexico when he was a teenager.

“How do we deliver high-quality education if we don’t have anything at the elementary school level?” asked board President Jamela Smith-Folds.

Esaul Orozco, the district’s director of English learner and multilingual achievement, said no elementary school outside of Grant Elementary has an abundance of newcomers like Richmond, Kennedy and Helms needed to sustain an Internationals Academy.

Orozco said the vision is to expand services in some way to elementary newcomers.

The next regular meeting of the West Contra Costa school board is April 24.

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