Abigail Pinto was busy on a recent school day practicing her phonetics, counting her numbers and participating in a group dialogue with other English language learners.
But the setting was altogether unique.
Pinto, 16, is one of about 30 Hall County students who are part of the inaugural class of the Newcomer Academy, which serves as an intensive immersion program for immigrant students of high school age.
“For me, everything,” Pinto said of why she likes the program designed to get her up to speed and narrow the cultural barriers she faces. Her family came to the United States from Honduras.
One in 4 Hall County residents is of Latino origin and that figure presents challenges for educators who teach English language learners.
The Newcomer Academy, which opened this past fall, works to address these issues across a two-semester program in language arts and science.
“One of the most rewarding things is kids want to come and are happy to be here,” said teacher Ashley Galloway. “I feel fortunate for that.”
Students who score too low on access exams are eligible for the program. They spend half their school day working at the Jones Learning Center, and the second half integrated into regular high school classrooms.
Anna Sargent, who heads up the Newcomer Academy, said “fusing” these students into the general school population for half the day is important because it provides them opportunities to earn core credit, participate in extracurricular activities and socialize with other students.
Several of the students were born in the United States and returned to their family’s country of origin during childhood.
That’s the case for Marco Rodriguez, 17, who recently returned to the United States after living in Mexico for many years.
And the same is true for Angie Garzon, 15, who recently came here from Colombia with her mother and sister.
Both said they were still adjusting to life in America as they missed their native home.
Both were also studious and working hard to complete the coursework necessary to one day graduate.
“We have to be flexible,” Galloway said, “and learn from them what they need.”
Sargent said school officials understand that these students’ success “doesn’t hinge on one year” in the program.
So administrators are developing a plan to track students’ progress throughout their high school education, including a graduation plan that sets them on an achievable path.
“It’s too early to call the program a success,” Hall Schools Superintendent Will Schofield said. “But I’m certainly encouraged.”
Administrators are examining how the Newcomer Academy is meeting its stated goals and what can be improved upon for next year’s crop of students.
Schofield said the traditional model of teaching English-language learned is “broken” and that the Newcomer Academy “appears to be a recipe for success.”
Sargent said a “showcase” for student’s parents is in the works to highlight the program’s early accomplishments.
“We’re doing right by these kids,” she added.