U.N. visit highlights HISD newcomer school Las Americas

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United Nations Deputy High Commissioner Kelly Clements was in Houston recently to discuss the global refugee crisis and explore how refugees are resettled in Houston with the support of agencies across the city, carving time out of her schedule to visit HISD’s Las Americas Newcomer School in southwest Houston.

Clements observed a few classrooms, spoke with refugee students, and met HISD Superintendent Richard Carranza. Clements works for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, a global organization dedicated to saving lives, protecting rights, and building a better future for refugees and stateless people. Also attending was former HISD Trustee Juliet Stipeche, now director of education for the city of Houston. 

“Las Americas is celebrating its 20th anniversary next year, so this is a wonderful opportunity to spotlight the work we do around refugees and the services we provide our families,” said Principal Marie Moreno, who has been in the position for 12 years. “When students arrive, we assess them in their native language to determine where they are academically.”

Students who are new to Houston and don’t speak English spend about a year at Las Americas. The goal is to get them into their zoned schools as quickly as possible. Sometimes they need only one year to gain enough English to move to their neighborhood school, but some students require more time due to gaps in their education. And if students enroll late in the school year, they also may stay at Las Americas the following year.

Currently, Las Americas is 80 percent Hispanic, 12 percent African, five percent Caucasian (mostly Iraqis), and three percent Asian, with children from 32 countries speaking 29 languages. It was a middle school until August 2013, when fourth and fifth grades were added. Every year the population changes, depending on the location of conflicts around the world. Typically, they start the year with about 60 students and end up with close to 360, the maximum number they can accommodate.

The Las Americas tour included visits to two classrooms and the “Closet of Hope,” where students “shop” for free clothing and other donations from the community. In the elementary classroom, the teacher is working with a small group of students, instructing them to “sit and clap, now stand and twist, now sit and sing, now stand and hop.“ The students mimic their teacher enthusiastically. The tour also includes a middle-school ELA classroom, where students are learning English in groups, while others are solving literacy problems on the computers.

In the Closet of Hope, Principal Moreno introduced a young girl from Afghanistan to the group. “When she arrived, she was very sad, and no one could understand her, so we hired a translator to work with her. Now you are doing much better, right?” The little girl smiled shyly and nodded.

Superintendent Carranza praised the school for its efficiency and said he is a fan of Moreno.

“If we could clone her, we would,” he said. “I refer to the administrators and teachers here as the ESL SWAT team. They are focused and overwhelmingly prepared to do what they do. They have an articulated way of moving toward a goal.”

After the tour, several refugee students were introduced and a discussion ensued. Kisanga, 13, was born in Congo and came with his parents from Kenya, where he went to school. An eighth-grader, he is at the highest achievement level. Clements asked him about his favorite class and what he would like to do when he grows up.

“My favorite class is technology, and I want to be a camera man,” he said. He likes Houston because his family doesn’t have to worry as much about money. He just won a $400 scholarship from YMCA International for an essay he wrote, in which he said he wanted to help people, especially his mother.

Amanda, age 9 and a fifth-grader, and her mother arrived in December from Ecuador, where they lived for seven years, but they are originally from Cuba.

“The best thing about being here is the teachers,” Amanda said. “The teachers in Ecuador would yell and scream at us, but not here.” Her favorite subject is English, and she would like to be a teacher, while her mother is studying to be a nurse’s assistant.

Two alumni of Las Americas have remained friends three years after leaving Las Americas. Danah, 14, is from Syria and attends Wisdom High School, while Khadija, 15, is from Iraq and Dubai and goes to Sharpstown High School. Both will be sophomores next year.

“There is great communication at this school,” Khadija said. “Our group of friends was like a small family inside the school.” She plans to return to Dubai to help students there, and Danah plans to attend university here.

“We don’t need endorsements or advertising,” Moreno said. “The word spreads through the neighborhood that Las Americas is where you come if you want to learn English. We make the students feel welcome, and the parents like to know that their children are safe.”