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It’s a new school year and a new country for immigrant and refugee students

State’s most diverse district welcomes newcomers

As Crestwood Middle School bustled with excited students greeting each other with hugs, hellos and high fives as they returned from summer break, eighth-grader Hussein Dieme twisted his locker combination like a pro. It was the first day of his second year in the Crestwood Middle School Newcomers Center.

Hussein, from Congo, said he was happy “to come back to school.” He likes social studies, science, math and playing soccer and wants to be a lawyer when he grows up.

Eighth-graders Hussein Dieme (in front) and Thierry Iranzi open their lockers

He joined a new class of students from countries across the globe, including Myanmar, Nepal, Morocco, Mexico, Rwanda and others, who trickled into Newcomers Center classrooms to begin sixth, seventh or eighth grade. Many students are refugees and come from areas of conflict or distress. Some arrived in the U.S. as recently as weeks or months ago, and have varying levels of English ability and formal education.

They started the day by writing their names on paper name plates, and received new backpacks if they didn’t come with them.

Luan Kim, a sixth-grader from Myanmar, met her teachers Amber Guichelaar, Sarah Wiedyk and paraprofessional Nada Hadzinumanbegovic. Luan said she looks forward “to learn and live here.”

Kentwood Public Schools Superintendent Michael Zoerhoff helps sixth-grader Ayush Sanyasi with his locker

Kentwood Public Schools, which is the most diverse school district in Michigan, enrolls students who speak more than 60 languages. The Crestwood Newcomers Center serves as a self-contained program for about 30-40 students to receive intensive English instruction, with emphases on speaking, reading writing and listening skills, while learning core subjects as well, during their first year or two in school. They join general education students for elective classes.

The elementary Newcomers Center moved this year from Meadowlawn Elementary School, where it was housed for several years, to Southwood Elementary School for capacity reasons.

Most students who start as newcomers in middle school are in the program about two years before they are ready to be mainstreamed, according to WIDA testing, into regular classrooms with English-language learner support, Wiedyk said.

Newcomers Center teacher Amber Guichelaar begins instruction

A Welcoming Place for All

Part of the beauty of Kentwood is that new immigrant students easily fit in with everyone else because of the district’s rich diversity, said Superintendent Michael Zoerhoff, who greeted Crestwood students as they began their first day Monday.

But in the Newcomers Center, there are “first days” throughout the year for students who enroll when families settle in the area. Kentwood has become a destination district for immigrant students because of its extensive EL programs, Wiedyk said.

“We celebrate diversity all the time,” said Crestwood Principal Donald Dahlquist.

Eighth-grader Danexis Marcano Olmo comes to Kentwood from Puerto Rico

Newcomers students soon develop a sense of belonging and often have a deep appreciation for the chance to go to school, sometimes for the first time.

“It’s great to see the students who were really quiet start to be more comfortable and interact with their classmates,” Wiedyk said. “They become more confident. We try to create an environment where it’s OK to make mistakes because everyone is learning.”

Wiedyk said many Kentwood graduates report that attending schools rich in diversity contribute to their success in college and careers. “It teaches them to embrace newcomers and people who are different from them.”

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers and On-the-Town Magazine. She has been covering the many exciting facets of K-12 public education for School News Network since 2013. Read Erin's full bio or email Erin.

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