It was the last Monday before the winter break.
Milk, bananas and cereal boxes were set up on small round tables in Kristine Jones’ homeroom at the Valencia Newcomer School. The school’s 134 students hail from 17 countries. In the back of classrooms, near the outdoor basketball court, by the hall decorated with flags and the garden sprouting with vegetables, 14 different languages can be heard.
The students are there to learn English, and with it, a new culture and school system.
It’s a small third- to eighth-grade school with big ambitions: help mostly refugee and immigrant children reach third-grade-level English proficiency so they can transition to a neighborhood school within a year.
Lynette Faulkner, the school’s principal, sums up Valencia’s goal as simply helping students find their voices.
“Our students need their voice, they need to be heard, and if they don’t have a way of sharing that voice, the talents and the gifts they have will never be shared,” Faulkner said. Her official title is intensive intervention specialist.
The school, part of the Alhambra Elementary School District, is in its first year of operations.
Most of the students at Valencia are immigrants, asylees and refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo and various Eastern Africa, Middle Eastern and Latin American countries. When they first arrive, many of the children are afraid to learn English and embarrassed to speak it, but Faulkner wants students at Valencia to feel safe to make mistakes and build confidence.
“Here it’s more of a safe environment, everyone is on the same page,” she said. “You and I, we may not know how to communicate, but I know that you’re learning exactly what I’m learning, and our job is to be able to speak, read and write English.”
Teachers and staff at Valencia work to make their space a welcoming one from the moment students step off the school bus, Faulkner said. Shortly after the sun rose on that December Monday, loud music blasted through a speaker where staff staged a welcoming area.
A dancing Samuel Lavi gave high-fives to each student as they walked past the school fence to where other staff greeted them with hugs and smiles.
Lavi is a classroom support assistant at Valencia. He’s also a refugee from Congo and worked in refugee camps in Tanzania, Burundi and Rwanda before coming to the U.S.
Lavi, who speaks seven languages, explained refugee students arrive at school with very little language tools to integrate.
“They know zero English, no ‘Good morning.’ Not even the sound of the letter ‘A’,” he said, standing inside the school’s enrollment office. He also works closely with families at the school. That day, Lavi helped a family from Burundi and another from Rwanda enroll their children in Valencia.
Lavi thinks a school like Valencia helps prepare students from a refugee background for better educational attainment and eventually better employment opportunities.
“For me, I think this is amazing because it’s helping a lot, a lot of our kids,” Lavi said.
Maria Teresa Tschupin, an immigrant from Venezuela, learned about Valencia through brochures from Alhambra. She and her 12-year-old son, Luis, arrived in Arizona in June 2018. Tschupin was concerned her son would have difficulty adapting in school and thought Valencia was the right choice for him.
“He’s advanced in English, I’d say by a lot,” Tschupin said in Spanish. Luis is excited about school, too, and participates in after-school flag football. Tschupin said she likes Valencia’s focus on the social and emotional development.
She remembers the day Luis came home with a handful of radishes students had harvested from the school’s garden.
“We ate them with a lot pride at home,” Tschupin said. She said Luis’ character will be shaped by Valencia’s diverse cultures.
“In today’s world, the view is that all that is different is excluded, and that’s not the idea,” she said. “When he sees something different, I want it to be normal for him. That he be a person who mediates, who can integrate not disintegrate.”
“The staff is very kind, very fatherly and motherly,” she said. “They’re very warm, there’s a lot of love here for the kids.”
Valencia is among the different programs school districts have implemented to meet the needs of refugee families that have moved to neighborhoods in west Phoenix and Glendale.
For the past seven years, the Glendale Elementary School District has had “newcomer classrooms” at sites with the largest numbers of refugee student enrollment. The district’s Harold W Smith, Desert Spirit, Challenger Middle and Desert Garden Elementary schools have these classrooms, said district spokesman Jim Cummings.
The Washington Elementary School District has one-on-one orientations with refugee families, support services available at all of its 32 schools and two staffers who work with the refugee population, said district spokeswoman Pam Horton.
Meanwhile, the U.S. is accepting the lowest number of refugees in decades. In fiscal year 2016, Arizona received a record of 5,115 refugees, when the national cap on refugees was 85,000. When President Donald Trump took office, he slashed that ceiling by more than half and lowered it again in 2018 to 30,000. In fiscal year 2018, 1,392 people resettled in Arizona, according figures from the Department of Economic Security. These figures also include asylees and victims of trafficking.
It was during the 2016 peak that Alhambra saw a need to service refugee students, said Mandi Bilyou, the district’s assistant superintendent for educational services.
“We had schools with really high numbers of refugees and immigrants, and it was a really hard… It was difficult for the programs that were in place to adequately meet their needs, and we weren’t seeing big progress,” Bilyou said.
The district put together a task force to research solutions and the team traveled to Indiana and Texas to observe newcomer programs in place there.
A common thread in those two programs, which Valencia implemented, is small group instruction. Under this model, classrooms are organized in several small groups with students sitting in round tables facing each other instead of separate desks for each student. Each group has a different task, and the teacher instructs one group and then checks on the others.
“The teacher is sitting, so that they are not over, not above you, but learning beside you,” Faulkner said. “For these children, they need this. The teacher needs to hear the student right here to see where their misconceptions are.”
The first ten minutes of Delia Rodriguez’s math class were spent reading a few pages from “Charlotte’s Web”. Rodriguez read as her class of sixth- to eighth-graders followed. Then, she moved on to the math lesson of the day: linear functions and graphing.
Rodriguez is the only math instructor, so she sees all of Valencia’s students. She said the students have made a lot of gains so far this school year, both socially and academically.
“These kiddos can do a lot more. They are hungry for learning,” she said.
“There’s a lot of different cultures, so at the beginning, it was hard for them to get used to a different culture,” she said. “Now, they laugh, joke and learn the other languages. It’s just amazing to see.”
Native Spanish-speakers learn a few words in Swahili. Children from African countries smile and say, “buenos días” to their Latin American classmates.
Rodriguez, who was born in New Mexico but grew up in Mexico, also learned English in elementary school. But she didn’t have a place like Valencia. Instead, she spent three hours in a classroom going through flashcards in English.
“No one even helped me. I learned by listening to the teacher, with my friends. It was very different,” she said.
Teaching six different grade levels is challenging, Rodriguez said, but as an educator she knows every child deserves high quality education. And she learns from the Valencia students.
Their smiles and kindness, despite the hardships they’ve experienced, are a lesson in strength and resiliency, she said.
“They say you are changing lives. I think it happens the other way around – they change our lives for us to become better people, and we owe it to them,” she said.
Many people are vested in making sure Valencia succeeds.
Besides working closely with the refugee resettlement organizations like the International Rescue Committee of Phoenix and Catholic Charities, there other social services organizations that partner with the school.
Students from Arizona State University’s Refugee Integration, Stability, and Education group tutor the eighth-graders. In December, the Arizona Diamondbacks Foundation donated scooters to every student and boxes of food for each family to take home for the winter recess. A volunteer with the IRC of Phoenix was there to support teachers, and a group of moms were learning about child care through Arizona Kith and Kin.