A Welcoming Environment to Meet the Needs of New Students. San Mateo County Education Leaders Take Note of RCSD’s Work to Guide Newcomer Students
Two 6th graders sit across a dual immersion classroom from one another, shifting in their seats as they take notes and absorb a world of new information. Both are getting familiar with new classmates, new teachers, a new setting, learning about another culture--and tackling a new language.
One student has grown up speaking Spanish and has recently moved to Redwood City. The other is a native English speaker. Over the course of a school year, they will each grow and learn from one another, sharing the experience of finding their way through that first middle school year.
Starting in a new job, school, or town--or mastering a new language--is exhilarating but can also be very scary as you learn your way around. For families new to the United States and Redwood City School District (RCSD), there is a special program that helps families navigate and build relationships within their new community.
Success of students is a success for schools and the greater community
The Kennedy Middle School Newcomer Academy serves students in grades 6-8 who are born outside the United States, have been in the United States school system for less than two years, and are identified as English Learners.
“The program offers a safe and thriving school environment,” said Sabrina Adler, principal at Kennedy Middle School. “Family members also receive a variety of supports.”
Launched in 2014, this innovative program recognizes the diverse needs of students and their families while providing immersive core subject studies with grade level peers coupled with social and educational support. Since its inception, the program has served more than 200 children.
With this unique model, native Spanish speaking students and native English speaking students learn together while developing their bilingual and biliteracy skills. Participants in the Newcomer Academy strengthen English proficiency while in general education courses alongside their whole student body peer group, rather than an “ESL only” approach that can feel isolating. Students also participate in Spanish Immersion classes, bringing their abilities to the classroom.
As many as 60 Newcomer Students, as defined by the California Department of Education, utilize the program each school year at Kennedy. Students have a fun and rigorous mix of immersion courses, a core English and Language Arts class, an elective course, and a small group Designated English Language Development (D-ELD) course.
“The Kennedy Middle School Newcomer Academy provides the academic and social emotional support for our students to thrive and learn in a safe and caring environment by working directly with the students and their families,” said Dr. Linda Montes, who serves as the district’s assistant superintendent of educational equity. “We’re proud to offer an exceptional education experience that embraces their unique needs and strengths.”
Building on successes in the Spanish Immersion courses, staff at Kennedy found students enrolled in the program felt more connected to grade level peers throughout their daily schedule leading to an overall sense of community building.
The focus is to provide students with a secure and flourishing academic environment and high quality instruction, while supporting social and emotional needs. The comprehensive program has seen great gains in proficiency assessments, raised attendance, and huge increases in student motivation and engagement for its participants.
Additionally, levels of proficiency in Spanish immersion classes have risen for the student body as a whole as high level speakers contribute their knowledge to classroom dialogue.
Beyond the classroom, Newcomer families are provided with opportunities to attend one-on-one meetings with school staff so they may be connected with local services and resources through the school’s Kennedy Family Center.
The Family Center is an area within the school where providers support students and families with many services--from academic, social-emotional, to safety-net services.
The program’s holistic approach to education recognizes that academics go hand in hand with so many other aspects of a child’s well being.
“This creates a bond between parents and the school,” said Michelle Remond, RCSD community liaison. “Parents feel engaged.”
Evening courses are offered to the families to explain topics such as the American public school system, the grading system, and ways to support the students at home.
The Kennedy Newcomer Academy continually adapts and adjusts to allow for more student access to grade level peers, counseling services for students, and to continue fostering successful relationships with the families.
That growth mindset has strengthened the program over the years and has led to the highly successful model which caught the attention of the San Mateo County School Boards Association (SMCBA). The SMCBA presented RCSD with the 2020-21 J. Russell Kent Award honoring the district’s Kennedy Middle School Newcomer Academy.
“We are honored to be recognized for the work we do to support some of San Mateo County’s most vulnerable children,” said Dr. Montes.
The Newcomer Academy not only prepares students socially and academically for high school but for the many years of success ahead of them.
Update: Since we first published this story, Principal Sabrina Adler left our district for a similar position in a neighboring school district. We have since welcomed Principal Nick Farnougiakis as our new Kennedy Middle School Principal.