Earlier this month, the Anchorage School District made national news when Slate.com’s front page named ASD “the country’s best school district for refugees.”
The story led with an anecdote about Congolese teenager Florence Mbabazi. After 17 years in a refugee camp, her family of seven learned they would finally be relocating to the United States.
“She imagined the bustle, skyscrapers, and glamour of New York City,” the journalist wrote. “When she learned she would be moving to Anchorage, Alaska, she cried.”
But it turns out Anchorage was the best place for the Mbabazi family to land thanks to the Newcomers’ Center, an English language learner (ELL) program for refugees and new immigrants, which was the focus of Slate’s story. And, this being Anchorage, the program has more than a few connections to UAA.
ASD’s hybrid model
ASD started the Newcomers’ Center in 1996 as a tool to help immigrant students adapt. That first year, the program welcomed 11 students, all native Spanish speakers. Today, as Slate reported, the Center hosts 87 students speaking 15 languages from 20 different countries.
Students enrolled in Newcomers’ spend half their day together in a language-focused classroom, and half at their neighborhood school alongside the rest of ASD’s 48,000 students. While many school districts focus on one system over the other—either forcing kids to adapt by dropping them in a common classroom, or isolating them from their peers by focusing solely on language education—the Newcomers’ Center is a hybrid model. Students receive focused attention and self-driven adaptation within the course of a school day.
UAA research in the news
Anchorage residents have heard the stats on their city—Mountain View is the nation’s most diverse census tract, the city boasts the country’s three most diverse high schools, etc. These stats, and their publicity, tie directly to the UAA research of sociology professor Chad Farrell.
Along with his Penn State colleagues, Chad analyzed 2010 census data and weighed the relative size of seven population groups to identify the best-balanced schools. Through this mathematical modeling, the team determined East High School, less than a mile from UAA, was the nation’s most diverse, followed by Bartlett and West.
But the impressive stats continue through the ranks. Six of the country’s seven most diverse middle schools are in Anchorage and, incredibly, of the country’s nearly 67,000 elementary schools, the 19 most diverse are all in Anchorage (click here for an ordered list of Anchorage’s most diverse schools).
10,000 language learners in Anchorage
ASD students speak nearly 100 languages at home, but the school day is all in English. That leaves a lot of students vulnerable to falling through the cracks. Education grad Philip Farson, B.Ed. ’93, B.S. ’95.—who works as ASD’s ELL program director—estimated 6,000 students receive supplemental assistance, with an additional 4,000 who graduated from services. “10,000 kids—or over 20 percent of the Anchorage School District population—has either been in the ELL program or is currently in it,” he said in a 2015 ADN article.
Another education alum on the frontlines is Bonnie Palach, B.Ed. ’92, a teacher in the Newcomers’ program. She started as a bilingual tutor for ASD in 1995 and joined Newcomers’ in 2001. In the years between graduating and joining ASD, she worked as an assistant language teacher in Japan. That international experience, she says, provided valuable context for relating to her students and their collective culture shock.
Bonnie’s classroom, and the Newcomers’ Center, are housed in UAA’s backyard at Wendler Middle School. She welcomes middle school students each morning, and teaches high school in the afternoon.
Bonnie, who teaches the lowest level of English-speakers, features heavily in the Slate article. Her role is challenging; refugee students may have painful histories, psychological trauma and intermittent schooling. Some are unable to read even their native language. Academic hurdles aside, her students also grapple with culture shock and significant responsibilities at home.
For the past 15 years, Bonnie has seen the outcomes of the Newcomers’ experience. “It’s such an intense period of time, and an intense experience. They grow together and create a community and bond, socially and academically,” she said of her students. “They are able to continue relationships even now.”
In fact—thanks to the wonders of Facebook—many of her original kids from 2001 are still in touch with her, and each other.
She glows when she recounts success stories over the years. A Thai student once broke down crying in her classroom. Several years later, she graduated from ASD with six college scholarships. Other students are now business owners and bank managers in Anchorage. One recently passed the bar exam in two states. She noted that several former students either graduated from or are currently enrolled at UAA.
These kids all arrived in Bonnie’s classroom with zero English skills. Like all teachers, she lives for those moments when a student reports back. “What better thrill is there?” Bonnie asked.
Seeing successes is only half the thrill, though. “The other best part is seeing lights go on when everything clicks, and you realize students have adapted—which is so hard,” Bonnie added.
A model for the nation
So what’s it like to see the national attention for the program? “It was amazing, just really really amazing,” she said. “I thought, Really? Our little group is a model for the nation?”
She suspects the program’s success comes partially from the smaller community in Anchorage. “We’re able to identify students more readily and coordinate with all these different programs,” she added. “I think it speaks volumes about ASD to be so proactive.”
Though she’s in touch with many past students, she’s equally likely to run into her current kids around town. At the recent Mountain View Street Fair and World Refugee Day, held at Clark Middle School—the nation’s most diverse middle school, helmed by principal Cessilye Williams, M.Ed. ‘01—Bonnie quickly ran into a few students, including a middle schooler from the Dominican Republic.
As the girl gave Bonnie a big hug, the student’s aunt thanked Bonnie for teaching her niece and helping her adjust to life in the States.
The small moment was among several hundred similar interactions Bonnie’s experienced in a place like Anchorage; a major American city with a small town feel, both incredibly diverse and stacked with social services, and backed by a hometown university meeting the needs of the community.
Want to know more about UAA’s community connections?
Learn how UAA’s Department of Health Sciences connects refugees with public health resources in Anchorage
Read more about Leadership Fellows Juniors, a UAA-led college preparedness program at Clark Middle School.
And click here to read the original Slate article on Newcomers’ Center.
Written by J. Besl, UAA Office of University Advancement