Boulder Valley School District

BVSD hosts Colorado Department of Education, fellow educators to share approaches supporting new migrant students

Student speaking on newcomer panel
Erin Rain

En Español

On February 1, Boulder Valley School District (BVSD) hosted a group of leaders from the Colorado Department of Education (CDE) and nearly 60 educators from 19 other school districts in the state to discuss practices and approaches for supporting newcomer students. A newcomer is defined as a student new to the U.S. and at the earliest stages of English language acquisition. Newcomer programming is typically during the first year of a student’s enrollment, providing them with a supported transition into their schools.

School districts in the Denver metro area have been experiencing a significant influx of migrant students. BVSD has welcomed 469 newcomer students to its district so far this school year from around the world, with the majority coming from Spanish-speaking countries. 

While schools welcome all students, regardless of when they arrive, under current state law, the state funds school districts based on their official enrollment count in October, so there is no new funding as schools work to support the influx of students. The Colorado Department of Education has shared that they recognize the issue and are considering possible solutions.

During the recent visit, CDE staff and the visiting educators had the opportunity to visit BVSD’s Arapahoe Ridge, Boulder and Centaurus high schools to observe the newcomer instructional process and teaching environments. They heard directly from BVSD Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Education (CLDE) educators, as well as principals and administrators at the schools.

Rob Anderson and CDE staff classroom visit

BVSD Superintendent Rob Anderson and CDE staff visit a newcomer classroom

The group then convened at the BVSD Education Center where they heard from a panel of students and their teachers, with presentations from the BVSD CLDE department and CDE staff on shared practices, ideas and approaches. Leaders discussed systems and structures of support, ways to create a welcoming environment, and instructional and assessment practices.

During the presentation at Centaurus High School, principal Dan Ryan shared “we see these students as a strength to our school — the diversity they add to our community, and the cultural experiences they bring. First and foremost our goal is making them feel welcome.”

BVSD Superintendent, Rob Anderson shared with the visiting educators that the newcomer students joining the district often have experienced trauma and have been through extremely difficult challenges to arrive in the U.S.

“Just like in your own districts, this type of a newcomer influx obviously puts strains on our system and staff, but we’re here to support them,” said Anderson.

Danielle Morris-Hesse is a bilingual CLDE teacher at Centaurus High School and helped establish and leads the school’s newcomer program. Centaurus has had 41 newcomer students arrive since the beginning of school this year with as many as seven in one week.

Morris-Hesse shared with the visiting educators that the first step in their newcomer program is the intake meeting with the families and students. She said the first thing the staff do is start with a big, welcoming smile.

“It may sound corny, but it’s so important,” said Morris-Hesse. “I want the students to know I’m here for you, I’ve got you.”

In the intake meeting the school works to identify the student’s level of education, and where, if any, gaps may exist. They also assess the needs of the families and review with the parents how to access school information, grades, services, and other resources. Morris-Hesse also stressed to the visiting educators the important part that community liaisons play in the onboarding process, as they are a valuable connection to the school and other community support for the families.

Centaurus’ newcomer program offers both social language and content language English classes for the students, which other districts noted as a potentially helpful approach.

“We tried to think of what foundations we could provide them in a sheltered environment,” said Morris-Hesse. “While we are teaching typical concepts like Math and Biology, we also can catch them up on grammar and social English that they’ll need to thread that learning together.”

Teacher talking to newcomer class

Morris-Hesse addressing her newcomer class at Centaurus High School

The sentiment from her students during the classroom visit was gratitude around the support provided by the school that includes free transportation to school (via BVSD buses as available or the free local Regional Transportation District (RTD) routes), free meals, and mental health support. Many students echoed that the care and support given to them by their CLDE teachers was the most appreciated.

Several students in the program shared how their previous educational experiences differed. One student shared that in her home country of El Salvador classes are much shorter and they are often finished by 11:30 a.m., and another student shared that in Venezuela math is taught with a totally different approach from the United States.

Morris-Hesse says the school works to offer additional support to families and students by hosting student socialization and parent engagement opportunities. She is the co-chair of a Spanish-speaking parent engagement group and Centaurus hosts “Cafecitos”, events for Spanish-speaking students to socialize in the school’s wellness room.

Teachers in the newcomer program shared that mental health supports are a top priority for the newcomer students, as many have experienced traumatic and difficult events. One of the biggest challenges in this arena is that there is limited bilingual mental health support. The schools are working to create solutions to this challenge by providing some weekly group therapy sessions through the RISE (Resilience in Schools and Educators) organization with mental health providers. The providers give lessons around dealing with stress and anxiety, processing trauma and identifying circles of trust.

At the BVSD Education Center, the group broke into groups by site visit and reviewed highlights and takeaways.

The peer mentoring program at Boulder High School stood out as beneficial, a program where students who speak Spanish can support the newcomers as peer mentors. And Centaurus High was praised for their intentionality around scheduling the newcomer classes and the way their  educational crediting system is structured. Arapahoe Ridge High School demonstrated how it aids newcomers who require more intensive support in order to qualify for graduation and to integrate into the school community.

Wrap-around support, which addresses academic and social-emotional and individual needs, for students was demonstrated in different ways. But most outstanding to the group were the ways staff have created safe relationships and emotionally safe spaces in the schools.

BVSD’s Director of Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Education, Kristin Nelson-Steinhoff shared that “welcoming newcomer students has been a major topic during monthly collaboration meetings with BVSD English Language Development teachers from across the district.”

“Additionally there have been several Wednesday late-start professional learning opportunities for teachers, focused learning for administrators, and a weekly communication entitled “Newcomer Knowledge” in order to support staff working with our newcomer students,” said Nelson-Steinhoff.

BVSD’s dual-language programming can be a plus in this situation for Spanish-speakers. The dual-language strands at the elementary and middle school levels offer migrant students an easier transition, since there is two-way dual-language learning in English and Spanish, with the goal of achieving high levels of bilingualism and biliteracy, academic achievement, and sociocultural competence for bilingual students.

Nelson-Steinhoff provided examples of how BVSD handles newcomer groups in both the elementary and middle school levels, which may also include co-teaching models in monolingual English schools. Ahead of the influx of newcomers, BVSD has been working to ensure that students feel included in their classroom community and have pride around their bilingual strengths, through its existing Bilingual and Proud programming and events.

Newcomer students at Arapahoe Ridge High School

Newcomer students share their experiences at Arapahoe Ridge High School

Hearing from the newcomer students
During the visits educators and administrators heard first-hand accounts from the students about their journeys to the United States. Siblings from Venezuela recalled how they lost everything, including their personal transcripts and documents, as they fled their country crossing the Darién Gap, a dangerous migration route through the jungle.

Students also shared an experience of their bus being hijacked, forcing them to escape for safety on foot. Others shared how they arrived in the U.S. with nowhere to stay and the challenges of being homeless.

One newcomer student at Arapahoe Ridge High School who participated in the student/teacher panel discussion said the safe transportation has transformed her school experience. She shared that in Honduras she had to walk to school, which sometimes took her two to three hours and as a responsible student was frustrated by how it often made her miss school.

Now, she walks five minutes to her bus stop each day, which is much easier. She shared that she is living here with a cousin as her parents remain in Honduras. She is the first in her family to pursue an education.

Other students on the panel shared their future hopes and plans after high school which for many included returning to their home country and starting a business or pursuing additional studies in the United States. Most students said their main goal was to be able to help their families and or make their parents proud.

“Spending time with our students and their families is an inspiring experience as they bring an amazing perspective to our work, are so happy to be in school and are eager to learn.  It doesn’t mean it’s easy for them, but their resilience and perseverance is admirable,” says Nelson-Steinhoff.

The Colorado Department of Education is planning to offer school districts continued opportunities and visits to other districts to share practices and continued learning for supporting newcomer students to the state.

Kristin Nelson-Steinhoff speaking to a group at the BVSD Ed Center

Kristin Nelson-Steinhoff addressing the visiting educators and CDE staff at the BVSD Education Center

Community support
Sandra Salazar, a BVSD Community Liaison at Arapahoe Ridge High School maintains weekly communication with newcomer parents, involving them in school activities, county updates, or opportunities within Boulder County.

“Our aim is to establish culturally relevant relationships with students and their families, fostering an environment where they feel safe to express their thoughts, feelings, concerns, and joys,” says Salazar.

She shared that the best way to support these students as they join our communities and schools is to take interest in their stories and create a welcoming environment.

Salazar says it’s important to acknowledge that the students and families have faced very difficult situations. She works to learn the names of all of the newcomer students and those of their family or closest person, and says she goes out of her way to “ask them about their likes, what makes them happy or sad, and inquire about these details constantly”. 

“In Colombia, we have a saying that when people connect from the heart, they possess 'Don de Gente,' which in English is somewhat like 'people skills with love.' And when people have 'Don de Gente,' security, confidence, and tranquility are always present,” says Salazar.

Looking for ways to support the newcomers in your community? Reach out to your local community agencies to see what types of support they may be requesting like supplies or donations. Remember that BVSD’s foundation Impact on Education (IOE), also provides funding and resources to support mental health, crisis needs, and more across BVSD schools; donations made to IOE allow them to provide resources and opportunity to students in need.


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