Featured photo: Doris Henderson Newcomers School. (photo by Derick Lee/EducationNC)

This story was first published by Education NC, story by Derick Lee

Alberto Cortez-Martinez, the son of a Salvadoran father and Mexican mother, was born in Chapel Hill but relocated to Mexico in early childhood. Eventually returning to North Carolina, Cortez-Martinez entered school with little knowledge of English. Even with the provided English as a Second Language (ESL) services, Cortez-Martinez recalls the challenges of trying to make the adjustment. 

Present day, he is front office support at the new Sylvia Mendez Newcomers School. Each day, Cortez-Martinez is surrounded by children with similar journeys and gets to witness a school intentionally designed to support them. Here is how Guilford County Schools (GCS) has expanded access to newcomers who are making the transition into public schools.

Supporting newcomers in transition

Newcomers refers to people who are immigrants or refugees recently arriving to a region — in this case, Guilford County. The Newcomers Schools are designed to support students making the adjustment to the new location. Providing services for English language acquisition is a specific focus.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, about 8% of N.C. public school students were recognized as English learners as of 2021. A dashboard from GCS shows that in 2022, the district had 7,407 English learners, making up over 10% of the district’s student population. At least 113 different languages are spoken as first languages across the school system.

As a result, there is a need for schools to be intentional about support for students whose first language isn’t English, especially newcomers who are acclimating to an entirely new country and education system.

Sonia Marquez, principal of Doris Henderson Newcomers School. Derick Lee/EducationNC

Doris Henderson Newcomers School is now one of two public schools of its kind in Guilford County. It is named after a long-time Guilford County educator, Dr. Doris Henderson, who was also a former principal at the site years prior to the renaming. Newcomers in grades 3-11 are eligible for enrollment. Attendees complete one academic year at Doris Henderson prior to transitioning to another school in the district.

Present day, the leader of the school is Principal Sonia Marquez. According to Marquez, the 2023-24 academic year welcomed students representing over 40 different countries. She emphasizes that the school’s focus isn’t solely language acquisition and other academic content areas. A significant focus is helping students adjust to the cultural shift while also providing comprehensive wraparound services to address other areas of living. This includes an immersive English environment, staff interpreters, social workers, and more.

These services are now expanding to another region of the county. In August 2023, GCS opened Sylvia Mendez Newcomers School. To start off the year, both schools are housed at the same location as they await the opening of the new school building in High Point.

Francis Baki, Math 2 teacher of Doris Henderson Newcomers School. Derick Lee/EducationNC

Newcomers school expansion

Sylvia Mendez was engaged in civil rights activism at a very young age. As a Mexican American, she was prohibited from attending white only schools as a child. This resulted in her family’s engagement in the Mendez v. Westminster lawsuit in the late 1940s. The ruling not only led to desegregation in California public schools but was leveraged in cases like Brown v. Board of Education

“We’re going to be the first school in North Carolina to be named after a Mexican-American activist. … Hispanics are finally getting more recognition now.”

Alberto Cortez-Martinez, Sylvia Mendez Newcomers School Front Office Support

Guilford County Schools will join in honoring Mendez’s legacy as they prepare for the ribbon cutting at the Sylvia Mendez Newcomers School. According to inaugural principal Christian Walter, this occasion marks the opening of the first public school in North Carolina to be named after someone of Latinx descent

Christian Walter, principal of Sylvia Mendez Newcomers School. Derick Lee/EducationNC

Referencing the power of representation, he believes that it not only pertains to educators resembling the various identities in their student body but can also be exemplified in the names that are given to schools.

As an ESL teacher for 15 years, Walter knows firsthand the challenges for both educators and students, as well as the benefits, of having a newcomers school. He shares that in many traditional school settings, whether due to budgeting or student population size, many ESL students may “slip through the cracks” without proper supports.

Walter feels an advantage of newcomers schools is that all the teachers “have a proven record of proficiency of second language acquisition.” As mentioned above, additional supports include several onsite interpreters, partnerships with UNC-Greensboro for health services, and a diverse school staff representative of many of the students’ backgrounds. Importantly, the school extends classes and other support to families as well.

Giovanna Alessio is a high school English Language Arts teacher at Sylvia Mendez Newcomers School. She mentioned that the new location will shorten the commute for students in High Point, allowing the school to engage with parents and the local non-native English speakers community.

Operating in what Alessio considers to be her “dream job,” her excitement for the new school is obvious.

“Opening this opportunity for them is going to be amazing,” she said.

The ribbon cutting for the Sylvia Mendez Newcomers School is set for Oct. 4th in High Point.

This article first appeared on EducationNC and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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