Boulder High sophomore Juan Ordaz Alameda, who was born in the United States but lived in Mexico with his family, recently moved to Boulder on his own to live with his cousin and learn English.
“Everything is better here,” he said, adding he wants to go to college after graduation and study either forensic science or acting.
To help him learn the language and navigate an American high school, he’s in Boulder Valley’s newcomers program. The district this school year moved the program from a centralized location at Arapahoe Campus to two high schools, Boulder High and Lafayette’s Centaurus High.
For the majority of the students, district officials said, their home schools were either Boulder High or Centaurus. Locating the students at those two schools gives them access to the full high school experience of sports, afterschool clubs and a wide variety of electives.
Centaurus has about 30 newcomers this school year, while Boulder High has 20. That’s about double the number who were enrolled last school year.
Boulder Valley’s new model is closer to how the St. Vrain Valley School District structures its newcomers program. St. Vrain transitioned away from a centralized program model about three years ago to allow students to stay in their community at their home high schools, district officials said. St. Vrain has 42 high school students designated as newcomers this school year.
At Boulder High, teacher Jane Moody said, her students this school year hail from six different countries — Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras, Vietnam, Japan and Brazil — and speak four different languages.
Though they share a beginning level of English, she said, they also come from a variety of educational backgrounds. Some attended private schools in their home countries, while others attended only a few years of elementary school. Some are with their immediate families, others live with relatives or moved here unaccompanied by an adult.
“There’s no typical newcomer,” said Moody, who has taught newcomers for 17 years — 14 in the St. Vrain Valley School District and the last three in Boulder Valley.
Sophomore Rocio Gutierrez Rivera moved to Boulder from Honduras with her mom and brother to join her dad, who had lived here for about five years. She said she likes her P.E. class best because she can play different sports.
“I like the different classes,” she said.
While it was hard to leave her extended family in Honduras, she said, “It’s better in high school here.”
Juan said the best parts of attending Boulder High have been a catering class, sports events and dances. The toughest part of moving here, he said, is being separated from his parents.
“It’s very difficult,” he said.
Moody, who taught the last two years at the small Arapahoe campus, was supportive of the move to Boulder High. One of the benefits of allowing them to attend their home high school instead of busing them, she said, is that they will have fewer transitions.
“Kids would move to the United States, get used to Arapahoe and then come to Boulder High after a year, a school with more than 2,000 students,” she said.
While all high school students who aren’t fluent in English receive support in learning the language, the newcomers program is designed to help with the transition for students who are in their first year attending school in the United States and are at a beginning level of learning English.
Moody meets with the student, their family members and a counselor to help them map out a plan for their first year. She also helps them with navigating everything from bus schedules to lunches. Even fire drills can be scary, she noted, depending on a student’s previous experiences.
For classes, they take intensive English language classes, a thematic class where they learn English vocabulary along with the class content, two traditional high school classes and an art or physical education elective. Along with teaching the English language class, Moody co-teaches a math class to provide students with language support to help them access the content.
“We put them in the classes that best meet their needs,” she said. “Learning English to be successful in high school, they have a huge amount of work.”
For their English classes, she said, said she works to keep the classes engaging, varying activities and using online games and high interest topics for reading assignments.
The first month of school, for example, students made posters about Boulder High that included a list of important people, facts, school symbols and schedules. They’ve also written online books about themselves and researched what makes newcomers programs successful.
On a recent day, the students worked on simple present tense, interviewing each other about their families and interests and then using the answers to write 10 sentences. Then they researched jobs online with a goal of learning community vocabulary, from names of jobs to names of stores.
Moody is fluent in Spanish, but encourages her students to speak English with her for practice, helping them become more comfortable talking to their other teachers. She also helps them with homework and studying for tests in their other classes.
”I have a little party in my office most days, with kids doing algebra or geometry on the floor,” she said.
Along with helping the students learn English and how to navigate an American high school, she said, she wants to make her classroom their safe spot.
“They’re a real strong community among themselves,” she said. “They’re all enthusiastic and excited to learn English. They like to teach other their languages and food and music. They’re very supportive of each other. They’re quick to see the things we share that unite us.”