Abu Zaeem

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Abu Zaeem describes his position as the principal of Doris Henderson Newcomers School in Greensboro, North Carolina. He explains how the school serves immigrant and refugee students in grades three through twelve for one, two, or three semesters by helping them acclimate to English and the American school system before they are transitioned to their home public schools. He discusses services and strategies to help students who are dealing with trauma upon arriving to the United States. He shares several of the challenges of his work, including communicating with parents when there are language barriers and dropout rates among older students who want to work. He emphasized that while the Newcomers School is a great option for many families, some choose traditional schools because of location, age of other siblings, or other reasons. He shared the limitations of a small school for a growing population of students, and admitted that funding is consistently an issue. Finally, he emphasized that the work of the Newcomers School would be impossible without its teachers, who are invested in educating and advocating for students and their well-being every day.



Hannah Marable: Hi. I’m Hannah Marable and I’m here with Mr. Abu Zaeem on June 27, 2019 at 10:36AM at Doris Henderson Newcomers School in Greensboro, North Carolina. I’m here with him to learn more about his role as the principal of the Newcomers School and understand how his school supports immigrant and refugee students. Mr. Zaeem, how are you doing?
Abu Zaeem: Doing well. How are you?
HM: Good. I’m good. Do I have your consent to record this interview?
AZ: You do.
HM: Okay. Will you tell us a little bit about how and why this school got started and how you got involved?
AZ: Sure. Sure. So, the school came about… The first year that it opened was back in 2007, 2008. A little over ten years ago. There was a need in Guilford County because there were so many ESL students that were coming in that were newcomer students. So, there was a need for us to open a newcomer’s school. You had students that were coming in that had varying abilities from all over the spectrum in terms of formal education. Some had lots of formal education, some didn’t have any formal education at all. So, it made it really challenging for schools to be able to take those students without a newcomer’s program and to be able to acclimate them to schools. Some of them had been in schools for the first time in their life. So, we felt like we needed to open something like a newcomer’s program here in Guildford County so that way we can bring students in for at least a year and get them back into the U.S. school system, get them acclimated to the language. You know, in terms of how the U.S. school system works. And then after a year, transition them on to their home schools which is where they currently live. We serve students from all over the district. So, they come to us. They’re bussed to us from all over the district. The way I’ve gotten involved, this is my third year here as a principal. I am a former ESL student. I was born and raised in Pakistan. My family migrated to the United States back in the early nineties. So, as they were looking for someone to lead the school, I guess they wanted someone to be able to relate to their families, relate to the experience of coming into the country. And I was placed here back in--. Two years ago. So, this will be my third year as the principal of Doris Henderson Newcomer’s School.
HM: Okay great. And who is Doris Henderson?
AZ: Doris Henderson is the previous principal. So, this was a--. It catered two buildings. This was a primary school and she was a longtime principal in this building off the primary school. And, you know, due to her service and her dedication to this profession, you know when they came up with the program, they named it after her. Doris Henderson. She is still very much active in our community. She comes to all of our school functions. She comes and walks the hallways and she is just another stakeholder for us. It’s great for us to have her around.
HM: Okay. Awesome. Okay. I would love to talk about some of the programs that you have here at your school. So, what are some of the best ways that you feel like schools and teachers can support newcomer students and what do those programs look like here?
AZ: Yeah. So, I think, you know, of course, we in terms of our support we try to make sure that--. A little bit about our school. We have students that are refugees and students who are immigrants. So that dynamic has changed a little. Back when it first started you had majority of the students were refugees and we had a few immigrants. Well, over time it’s been almost close to fifty fifty. And now you have more immigrants than you have refugees. When you think about students and even immigrants, you know, they are coming in for different reasons. They’re coming with a lot of trauma. You know, they’re coming from--. A lot of our students are coming from African countries. They’re coming from war-torn countries. A lot of them are coming in without their parents. Those types of things. So, one of the things when I first got here, we didn’t have you know, some of the arts that we were offering. When you have students who are coming in, who are going to struggle with the language, they’re going to struggle with the reading and the writing, you got to make sure that you got arts that you can offer to them. Things like music, things like actual art, dance programs. Those types of things. So that way that’s just another way for them to express themselves because unfortunately they’re not able to do so in the English language. So, that’s a way that we provide them support. We also have, because of the trauma and some of the baggage that they come to us with, we have partnered with the local university UNCG. And they provide psychological services for our students. So, we work with the staff to see if some of the signs that they may observe from the students. Or, you know, some of the social histories that students may be coming to us with and we out of our title one funds, have created a partnership with them and they provide a limited number of support, amount of support, in terms of families. Not just the students but also their families. And it is off campus. So, in terms of the [inaudible], you know you guys here in education, the social and emotional learning. So, that is a big piece. You know, unless they feel socially and emotionally comfortable and safe to be in this environment, you know, regardless of what you do with them academically, they’re not going to be able to learn. So that’s something that is really important. Academically, you know, we bring them in and we have tier classes. So, depending on their level of formal education in the past, we place them according to their level. So, we assist their reading levels. We place them in classes based on the formal education they’re coming to us with. We’ve had children that have come to us that have had no formal education at all. And we have a group within ESL group that we place them in that classroom which is more of a self-contained classroom. And they stay with that classroom and those students all throughout the day because the support of those students are going to need are going to be a little bit more than what others are going to need. In terms of supports in the community, we have a wonderful school social worker. She looks out into the community to make sure that, in terms of insurance, in terms of housing, some of those things, that a lot of our refugees and immigrants’ parents are going to need, they’re able to look for those communities and forced to provide help. For them, we do parent events twice a year and we invite folks like immigration attorneys, we invite folks from outside in the community come and talk to our parents because we realize the need to be able to equip our parents with the tools that they need to support our children. We can do everything with them but parents are the ones who are going to need to be empowered to continue to support our children. So, we do a lot with them. We also do a Saturday literacy program where we bring parents in and we do Saturday ESL classes for them. We’re also looking to start a next year, on Saturdays, a business entrepreneurial classroom. One of the things we’re finding is just because, you know, they don’t know the language, they’re coming to us with a lot of skills that they’ve learned in their countries which can very much be applicable here in this country. So, they just need to be able to pick up those entrepreneurial skills and know the system and how to become an entrepreneur you know, down the line. Those are just some of the supports that we provide.
HM: Yeah. That’s awesome. And I know that Guilford County has the Parents Success Academy.
AZ: Parent Academy.
HM: The Parent Academy. How does the Parent Academy work with your school?
AZ: Yeah. So, the Parent Academy holds a lot of the sessions out in the district. You know, one of the ones that they just held lately was on opioids. And for the parents to be aware of some of the signs and things that they may see out in the community or how they can make sure that children are, you know, are not exposed to those things. So, the things that they’re offered in the district, we just make the parents aware of them. And a lot of those are off campus so, central locations within the district. We just make the parents aware of those sessions to make sure that they attend them. But that becomes an obstacle for our parents because all the events that we do here are, we have interpreters. So, you have a Spanish interpreter, you have an Arabic interpreter, French, Swahili, and Vietnamese interpreters. So, when they come to our events, you have someone there that is translating in their language. Unfortunately, when you have district events that are on such a large scale, and you have so many different languages that are spoken they don’t always have an interpreter for them. So, one of the things that we find is, our events here are more attended than the ones that are offered by the district because there isn’t someone there to be able to offer them their translation service.
HM: I see. So, you’ve talked about this a little bit but I want to talk about it a little more.
AZ: Sure.
HM: So, I’m interested in how you create safe spaces for your students. How you make your students feel safe here at the school. So, maybe that safety from threat of deportation or a place where students can feel safe to speak their native language and be themselves. So, how do you do that here at your school?
AZ: Sure. Sure. So, I think the first thing I’ll start with the deportation and the ICE. That is a really hot topic. We have, unfortunately I know all of us have heard about the different tactics that they’ve used and you know, them being in neighborhoods and near schools. So, a lot of our parents they think that because children are going to schools as they’re leaving schools, you know, the officials are going to be waiting somewhere they know children are going to be there and they’re going to you know, talk with the students or whatnot. So, the first thing is we actually this year communicated multiple times to parents about this being a safe place. You know, when they’re here, no one is asking them about their immigration status. We’re not, we have no concern of that at all. We are concerned for them and we understand you know, that they are worried about things like that but we try to assure them that this is a safe place from the time that they get on the bus at the bus stop, to arriving to school, being in school, to arriving back at home. That it’s a safe place we can assure them that. And the district has assured us that we will assure the parents that nothing is going to impact them at all. Other than that, what happens out in the community unfortunately the school doesn’t have control over that. But, we try, you know, communicate with them that this is a safe zone. As far as the, I think the second question was, what was-- ?
HM: How do they feel safe to be themselves, to speak their language--.
AZ: Right. Right. One of the things that we have as new staff is coming in, and we do staff development every year. You have to find that balance in a school like ours and anywhere else when students leave. You have to find that balance between students being able to speak their language and students being asked to speak English. Of course, we want them to speak English because that is an area of literacy, the speaking piece that we want to make sure, for the language acquisition piece of it, we want to make sure that they are continuing to practice the written and the spoken English. But at the same time, we want to honor their heritages. We want to honor their backgrounds and what they’re bringing to us. Instead of looking at it as a negative thing, we try to use it as something positive. So, you know, let’s say the two of you guys and both of you guys speak French. You had previous English instructions you may not have. So, one of the things that we try to use that to our advantage is we may pair students together with common languages and we say, well you understand English and you can explain this to someone who doesn’t understand English. So, tap into that as something positive instead of you don’t know English as that being a negative thing. But then there are times we say okay we do need you to respond back to us in English. So, to be able to provide them with that support, we do one of the things that we started working on a couple of years back, we do language sentence trainings. So, we try to provide them with language support that they need in order to be able to respond to the questions that teachers are asking. So, we provide them these sentence frames which are nothing more than just fill in the blanks. You’re giving them some of the language and they’re filling the blanks that way--. And one of the things that we see common all the time is ESL children they will give you one- or two-word answers. Well, so you take those one or two words and plug it into the language frame and now you’ve given us a full complete sentence and then that way children feel, you know, pretty strong about being able to, being able to take part in the conversation discussion in classrooms which helps them continue to motivate them to continue to learn the English. So, you have to be able to find that balance between using their language and at the same time using English. So, we try to make sure to tell the teachers that they are not to tell the students you cannot use your language. There are times that it is okay to use it because you want to make sure they comprehend what they’re reading and we’ll know when you read something you can understand it but being able to say it back in your own words, that’s tough especially when you’re learning the language of English. So, to check their comprehension even if they can show you in their language that they can understand, at the end of the day they comprehend it. Reading and understanding and the speaking of the English language is going to come over time. And they’re only here in their first year, sowe know that sometimes that is not going to happen while they’re here. So, just trying to be understanding of that process of language acquisition is extremely important.
HM: Okay. And you’d mention that you have students who have experienced trauma, so let’s say a student comes in and is feeling the effects of this trauma.
AZ: Sure.
HM: How do you handle that situation?
AZ: Yeah, so that’s a great question. We have an enrollment specialist so the wonderful thing about our program is although we haven’t had a lot of turnover, she’s been here from day one. So, she has seen every type of student that is coming in with a lot of different trauma. So, one of the things that we do is during the enrollment time, when they first come in, whether with a resettlement group or whether they come with a community advocate or whoever, we do an interview with them. So, as they’re coming in and she knows the types of questions to ask to be able to probe some of the information from them. So, you know, someone’s coming in, you know, okay, well, who are you? You know, if you’re not the mom or the dad, okay well what kind of affidavits and things that you can provide and then if you’re traveling without a parent, then of course that’s going to have some sort of trauma attached to it. What happened to them? So, we do an interview with them to be able to get some basic information and just based on that information, we get that information over to our school social worker. And you know, she goes out and does social history and meets with the parents or meets with the guardians or whoever came to enroll them to collect more information. And then our school social worker is our liaison between the school and UNCG psychological service to see, maybe, there is something that we may be able to, you know, do for them. Definitely not something right away. We want to get the child here. We want to work with them a little bit.
HM: Yeah.
AZ: Just to see all those sometimes, as adults we feel like they’re coming, they’re maybe coming with trauma. Sometimes they may surprise us and they may feel like, hey, we don’t need the services. We are okay with that. And, you know, you don’t want to jump into the services too quickly because you don’t want to bring back some memories that they already left behind. So, our thing is wait to get them in and you work with them for a couple of weeks, and then if you see signs from the child, you see signs from the adults of the family, and then you see the social interview that we’ve done with them, put everything together and then you do the recommendation for the psychological services.
HM: Okay. Great. And, I know that students are allowed to stay here for up to a year. So, how or who decides or how do you decide when a student is ready to leave? Do most of your students stay the entire year? Do they stay less than a year? What do you see?
AZ: Sure. That’s a great question. So, according to the office of civil rights, we don’t, it’s not just us that say we’re just going to keep them only for a year. According to the office of civil rights, we are segregating the students according to their demographics. These are refugees and immigrants. So, we have to be very careful with that. So, from their directive, they say, you can keep them for a year and when I first got here, I wanted to research this because I wanted to make sure I understood it. And in their [inaudible] they actually stated there that they can stay for a year unless the school feels like a child can benefit from being here for longer than a year. So, for us a year is two semesters. So, sometimes you have students who stay for longer than a semester. Sometimes you have say, some that stay less than a semester. And I’ll give you examples of who stays longer and who stays less. So, let’s say you have a child that comes in let’s say in January. So, from January to May or to June is one semester. And the next year from August to December or January is another semester. Well, let’s say a child comes in and the child you know, everything in the United States educational system is done by age. So, until you get to high school then everything is done by credits, right? So, let’s say you’re coming in and you are eight or nine years of age and you are of the age to be in third/fourth grade. You’ve had no formal education at all. So, we’re starting from--. We have had to do that. We’re starting from scratch. This is how you hold a pencil. This is what letter ‘A’ looks like. This is what letter ‘B’ looks like. For some of those students who are coming with no formal education or what we call, an interruptive formal education, used to be SIFE students who interrupt formal education, now it’s SLIFE who are just students with limited interruptive formal education and interruption is designed depending on which, you know, what do you pick up and read about it. It’s anywhere from two to three years of a gap that it talks about. So, for students coming to us that we consider SIFE, those are the students that sometimes we do exercise their option of keeping them for longer than a year. What we see from some of the students as well is you keep them for three semesters longer. Sometimes what we recognize or what we pinpoint is, sometimes, they go through our instructional, our IST, or sometimes they go through our EC program because some of those students may also have some sort of a learning disability. You put interventions in place through IST team and then you look to see if those interventions work to rule out any some sort of a disability that they may be, you know, they may be experiencing that may really prevent them from learning the content. You have to be careful with that because they’re in their first year in the United States so it is going to be difficult for some to show mastery of growth right away. So, sometimes, we give them six months to a year just to have enough exposure to the English language. So, sometimes those are the kids that we keep them for three semesters because the process really takes a year and a half for them to have some time under their belt to show some understanding of something that they’re learning for us to be able to assess. Whether they’ve learned their materials or if they haven’t with interventions. Additional interventions have them learn them and if they if they haven’t, then maybe for them exceptional students’ services todetermine to do additional testing to see if there is some sort of a disability. So, those are the students that we may end up keeping them for longer than a year. On the opposite, we may have some students that we may keep them for less than a year. For less than two semesters. So, one of the trends that has changed over the last couple of years is, a lot of our--. More of our students are coming from our Spanish speaking countries where you have formal education. You know, you have something like the hurricane in Puerto Rico and you see an influx of families that are settling here. Puerto Rico has a real established educational system and a lot of your students are coming to you with, you know, being exposed to the English language. So, sometimes, they, parents bring their children here and they enroll them here for one semester just to get an idea of what the, U.S. system, educational system is like. You know, a lot of them are older so they may be looking to see how many credits do you need to graduate. Those types of things. But then after a semester, they may be ready to go on to their, you know, home schools and be ready to take additional classes. You also have, we don’t offer the full spectrum of courses because you know, just the number of students and the faculty that we have. So, I’ll give you an example. You require four Englishes for a student to graduate from our school. We only offer English one and English two because very rarely do we get students who have courses that are equivalent to an English two or English one here in the United States. When the other student who’s maxed those out and they neede an English three, they can’t take that here so we look at an early transition for them to go to another school where they can take those classes. So, it just depends. A lot of your older students depends on their education. Their previous education. The number of credits they’re coming to us with and what we are able to offer them. Sometimes, if we’re not able to offer them with any more credits, there’s no need for them to stay here because then that’s just wasting their time because they could be taking additional credits at their home schools. So sometimes we’re going to transition them early.
HM: Okay. And do students have a say in when they are ready to leave? Or, is that a decision that--.
AZ: Well, normally it is a decision that we make. If they’ve been here for a year and unless they are part of our IST or going through the EC process, you know, after a year, then probably eighty-five to ninety percent of our students will leave after a year. Sometimes, we do get the input of the teachers. Sometimes we’re on the fence because I recognize that I’m in an office. I’m not teaching them every day. And teachers are the ones who hold the expertise in teaching the children every day. So, sometimes we do have teachers that come to say, hey I think this kid really can benefit from being here another semester. Then we ask them, let’s take a look at their data. Because, we have to be mindful because these are opportunities that we are providing for them and we have to have equitable practices to be able to provide these opportunities for children because at the end of the day, if we offer this opportunity just about all of our parents will want our children to be here for more than a year. So, when we are making the decision of sending someone after a year versus keeping them here for an extra semester, you have to be able to justify. So, we definitely go back to the teachers and ask them for the data to do a comparison between someone that we are transitioning early or someone we are transitioning after a year and this child and if the data shows that this child hasn’t learned at the same pace that we expect them to then we can bring them back. So, they do have some say. And then sometimes parents. We also transition in the middle of the year. And that’s a tough transition for elementary and middle school students. Transitions. So, we just did a transition in June and students will start at their new schools in August. That is a natural transition because everyone is starting out at a new school. You may have people who have moved. So, when they start at a new school in August, you know, it is okay because everyone’s going to make new friends. People are going to be in different classes. So, it is okay. But the transition that we do in January, that is a tougher transition for elementary and middle because as someone who struggles with English in a new country, and now, I am in a new school in January where everyone has made friends. Now I am, you know, a stranger in the classroom and it’s going to be hard for me to make friends. Just for that sometimes, students will struggle with their social and emotional ways. We consider maybe keeping them back for another semester and transitioning them in August when it’s a little more natural or time for them to start a new school.
HM: Great. And I know that in the PowerPoint you gave us, there are some obstacles to educating these students listed that I’m excited to look over. But would you talk about some of the challenges about the work that you do here concerning these students?
AZ: Yeah. Absolutely. I think language is always the first one. I mean, I think even when they’re here, parents and teachers communicating with the parents, you have to have an interpreter there all the time talking with the students. Sometimes they understand, they don’t. And rightfully so because they’re just learning the language. Parental involvement is something that we also struggle with because as you may imagine, you know settling into a new country and if it’s not under favorable conditions, parents are working. They’re busy. You know working different times of the day and then getting them here for parent conferences or for parent events. Sometimes that is challenging. Transportation is also challenging because if you guys know a little bit about Guilford County, from one side of Guilford County to the other is quite a few miles. So, someone could be living, you know, close to Burlington which is still Guilford County. That is thirty, forty minutes from here. So, transportation and then gas prices. Those types of things. So parental involvement really becomes an issue for us. Another issue we tend to see that in high school is a lot of our students whether they’re here with their families or whether they’re here alone without parents, the financial situation. So, there’s a financial burden among the families that are here. If they’re here living with the friends of the family they have to be able to provide financial support with whoever they’re living with. So, one of the things that we see with our students, especially with our high school students, they tend to have more or higher dropout rates because they want to drop out and they want to go and work. Especially that becomes even higher when you have students who are sixteen, seventeen years of age who are coming with an interrupted education and now you’re seventeen years of age you place them in ninth grade and they need four more years of schooling to graduate so then you have those two options. Four years of school and, yeah, I can work but I can’t work full time. I’m seventeen years of age and I’m an able body and I can go out and work and provide financial support for whoever I’m living with. So, from time to time, we do have to compete with that and it’s hard to compete with that when you’re having to compete with financial freedom and being able to support, you know, living here, paying the rent, car insurance. Those types of things. Versus staying in school. So that becomes a really, you know, a big challenge for us. Sometimes you work out with employers out in a community to help employ our students after school hours. You know, we have a few students that we employed here nearby that the school bus actually takes them to their, to the McDonalds that they work. So just looking at different obstacles that they’re faced with. Trying to come over with different ways for them to overcome those obstacles. You know, of course, insurance. You know, immunization. All students have to have immunization so, you know, if you’re coming in as a refugee, refugee resettlement groups, they will provide you with that service for three months. After three months, you know, you’ve got to find your own sources of insurance, sources of income. Those types of things. So, children having to go out and get immunizations and go see doctors and those types of things, they may not have the insurance. So, our social worker really works you know, with the community, with the health department and different clinics to be able to provide those supports for our parents. That’s the clinic and those are the days and the hours that you can go to see them. So, those are just some of the few of the barriers, the challenges we face.
HM: Okay, yeah. So, let’s say a student arrives in Guilford County, I want to understand the path from arriving here and arriving at your school. So, are you involved with doing outreach? How do students hear about Newcomers and come here?
AZ: Sure. That’s great. I think that all of Guilford County schools are aware of the Newcomers program. So, they know that, and we are third--. On paper we’re third through twelfth but we don’t have any twelfth graders because we like for them to graduate from their home schools. So, we really have third to eleventh graders here. So, our schools do a really good job when you have a new family coming in as they are intaking or enrolling them in, you know, I think right away they sense there’s some sort of a language barrier and this is the first time that they’ve been in the United States. They’ll pick up the phone and they’ll reach out to us. They’ll say, I’ve got a family from Venezuela and a family from Pakistan. They just got here. They’re in third grade. K through two they have to go to their own schools. Anyone that’s third grader or higher they have the option of coming to Newcomers. We are a school of choice. So,when parents come to us, we tell them about all of the things and all of the services that we offer to them. But, we are a school of choice. It is not mandated that parents come to Newcomers or their children enroll at Newcomers. We just give them the information about the services that we will provide for them and how long they’ll be here and those types of things. And at the end of the day it’s the decision of the parents for them to decide whether they want to enroll their children here in Newcomers or enroll them in their home schools. Sometimes, some of the factors that go into that decision making is we are centrally located in the district in Guilford County. So, we do have a shuttle system. But Guilford County school transportation and sometimes, some of our earliest students will be picked up around six, six fifteen in the morning to go to a hub to get on another bus to get here. Sometimes parents say, no, I live right across from the elementary school. My children can go. That is literally walking distance. So, walking distance versus an hour and a half on the bus, I want to keep my child here and I don’t want to go to Newcomers. You also have sometimes multiple siblings. Say you have a kid, two child that is not eligible to come to Newcomers so sometimes the parents or the guardians they don’t want to split the families up. So, they say, you know what, I have a first grader who’s going to go to this school. I don’t want to send my fourth grader to Newcomers. I want to keep them together. So, sometimes they don’t come to Newcomers and send them to their own schools.
HM: Okay.
AZ: Yeah.
HM: Okay. So, I know that schools often play really important roles in communities, in terms of disseminating information and being a safe place for students, so what role does Newcomers play in the community networks and support for the families in this area?
AZ: Sure. So, our PTA is actually a local church. So, we ,you know, we look at the demographics of our students. We have, you know, we have students from all over the world. So, we reach out to our community because one of the things that we realize is we can wrap around our students here at school but until the whole community wraps around them, it really doesn’t work because we protect them. We do all of those things for our students. But, when they go out, you know, they’re faced with different obstacles. So, we reach out to our religious organizations in the area. We reach out to our synagogues. We reach out to our mosques. We reach out to our churches. We reach out to those--. We reach out to our Buddhist temples that are here in Greensboro. We make sure that we bring them in. We even contact them when parents are having issues with some of those things because we know that those clerics or ministers or preachers are looked at as leaders in their community. To be able to bring them in and mentor some of our students. You know, we look at, you know, things out in the community in terms of insurance. You know, in terms of food stamps. You know, different supports that if we’re not able to provide for them help our parents, you know, set them up with those supports to be able to help them so we can support ourchildren. We try to bring the community in, you know. We bring attorneys in. We bring in folks. We have landlords that work with our refugee students and our parents because sometimes they may not have the documentation to be able to do a lease. So, we have some landlords that work with our students. We have that information. So, we are doing it in an enrollment. We’re able to see what the needs are of the parents and unless they’re coming with a resettlement group we can help them with some of the supports that are out in the community. So, really try to wrap the whole community around our students because it really does take a village to do the work.
HM: Yeah. That’s great. And, what hopes do you have for the future of your school? How do you hope to continue to improve what you’re doing at Newcomers?
AZ: Yeah. So, I hope to continue to exist. You know, unfortunately, funding is always the issue in education. But we have a lot of support from our superintendents, school board members. You know, teachers come in and been around for eleven, twelve years now. So, we want to continue to grow. Our numbers continue to grow every year and you know, we have a small building so we would like to see if some point, if the funding is there, to continue to expand because sometimes that decision, you know, additional enrollment becomes an issue of size. And, an issue of size of the building. You know, we have small classes, so you can only fit so many children that’s going to have a conducive learning environment. So, in a small classroom that is built for twenty students, you have thirty students just because of the size of the classroom. That’s something that’s going to be conducive in a learning environment in the classroom. So, we’re hoping to continue to grow. We’re hoping to continue to create that awareness for a population of students. We have former students who are doctors, who are educators, who are engineers, who are lawyers. You know, our children go on to do wonderful things. And just continuing to work against that stereotype that, you know, our children are limited to the opportunities that they have because the sky is the limit for them. The only difference is, and I find myself using myself as an example all the time. Sometimes, children are out working with a twelve year gap. I was twelve years of age when I came to this country. You are twelve years behind compared to your peers. That just means you have to work twice or twelve times as hard to catch up to your peers so you can compete in this marketplace for jobs and different opportunities for yourself. We have to be able to, you know, look at our children and provide them opportunities to speed up that process so they can have access to the opportunities that non-ESL peers have out in this area. So, just hopefully, you know, continue to do that.
HM: That’s great. Yeah. So, I know I mentioned some about the research that I’m doing and how I’m making recommendations to New Hanover County Schools in August. So, as someone with a lot of knowledge about this kind of thing, what do you feel like is at the core of success for immigrant and refugee students? If there are some recommendations that you feel I--. Something I need to get across to the board to best support these students? Is there something that comes to mind?
AZ: I’ll tell you. I would never have been able to do this without the folks, you know prior to me, would have never been able to do the work that we’re able to do without the folks who are in the [inaudible] and that’s the teachers. Anyone that is trying to start something like this, you got to have the right people to do the job every day. So, we have that. That has evolved. So, I think you know, you’re definitely have to look at people, you know, like yourself who are coming from ESL backgrounds, who have the passion to educate children. I think one of the things that we got to make sure is that we’re not here to save children. You know? We’re here to educate children. Sometimes you see people who want to work with our population of students because it is a feel-good kind of a job. And that’s great. We want people to feel good about what they do. But at the end of the day, we have to educate our children because education is going to provide opportunities for them in the future. So, I think that is the key there is to make sure that you design the programs sometimes, it can start out small scale. One campus of a school. But you got to have the right people who are leading it. You have to have the folks who are going to be passionate about doing the work and that’s work that there’s no boundary. You know, we have parents that reach out to me at twelve thirty or one o’clock in the morning that need help with something. You have to be able to. So, if someone that is eight to four persons, after four o’clock they don’t want to deal with this, unfortunately that doesn’t work. And folks prior to me who opened this program were and still are those kinds of people. Your heart has to be with the students and you have to be able to create those opportunities and you have to be able to fight the stereotypes that you’re going to be faced with all the time to make sure you continue to fight and continue to advocate for the students. Yeah. But people, your personnel is going to be the key. If you have the right people the program will run itself. And I’ve been very fortunate to have that.
HM: That’s great. So, I know this is school is pretty unique to North Carolina. Are there programs like this around the country?
AZ: There are. We are, we had someone that came from the department of education last year. And they actually verified that we are the only one of a kind program in the United States that has elementary, middle, and high in the same building.
HM: Oh, wow.
AZ: There are lots of other programs. I think when we were trying to open this program back in 2007 there were models out in New York and out in California who had been doing this a lot longer than we have. I actually had the pleasure of visiting a school down in Houston, which has a lot more of an immigrant population than we do. And they have separate elementary, they have separate middle and separate high schools. Of course, enrollment is much larger than ours. Their high school had almost 2,000 students there.
HM: Wow.
AZ: But they also, one of the neat things that they did was they had a double shift high school. The hours of the school were 9AM to 12AM. So, if you had students that wanted to work in the evening they could attend during the day. If you had someone that wanted to work during the day, they could attend in the evening. So, there are a lot of different programs that are out there and folks that recognize there has to be something different for our ESL students because coming here, placing them in mainstream schools, that just doesn’t work. Unfortunately, that does not work. Children are already behind and they’ll feel even more behind. And when you have some of the things that we listed here about bullying, and them not knowing the language, children get picked on. The social and emotional piece. They continue to fall further and further behind that eventually they drop out. So, yes. I mean there are a lot of other schools that are in the area. Not sure of North Carolina but there are a lot of states that have these models already in place and they’re doing a great job.
HM: That’s great.
AZ: Yeah.
HM: Well, that’s all I have for you. Thank you so much for having us today.
AZ: Absolutely, my pleasure. And you guys have the information--. [END OF INTERVIEW]