Resettling migrants have more than doubled enrollment in DPS’ Newcomers program

Educators are helping new students from all over the world.
7 min. read
Seabeh Amiri and her brother, Samir, dance onstage as Denver Public Schools’ Multilingual Education department celebrates the end of the year at the Bruce Randolph School. May 17, 2023.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

Music poured out of the Bruce Randolph School's cafeteria on a recent evening as Denver Public Schools celebrated another year in the bag. On this day, their focus was on the district's multilingual education program, and the Newcomer Centers that serve students who've recently moved to the U.S., many of whom are seeking asylum or have already locked down official refugee status.

It was an unusual year for the department - and the city as a whole - as large numbers of asylum seekers arrived in Denver in recent months. City resources have been stretched thin to accommodate scores of people who crossed into cities like El Paso and made their way north, some who might have sought refuge in homeless shelters if not for emergency accommodations. Mayor Michael Hancock has said repeatedly that the effort is pushing his budget to its breaking point.

Officials have estimated that at least 70 percent of people arriving have plans to go elsewhere, but some have stayed to try to build a life in Denver. As their kids enrolled in DPS schools, the district's multilingual education program also saw an uptick in need. In the 2022-2023 school year, they served twice as many new arrivals as they did in 2019 and 2020.

Data Source: Denver Public Schools

While the broader effort to help people has been a heavy lift for the city, DPS' educators say they've been delighted to rise to the occasion.

"This energizes me," Adrienne Endres, executive director of DPS' multilingual education department told us. "This is who we are here to serve, and why we show up every day."

Recent arrivals from Central and South America fueled this uptick in enrollments, but they weren't the only ones looking for education.

The evening program was quick, just long enough to mark the occasion so families, assisted by a small army of translators and liaisons, could peruse a resource fair offering job help and connections to medical services. But before they were set loose to browse, administrators asked Seabeh, Sara and Samir Amiri to perform onstage. They danced dressed in colorful, sequenced outfits rooted in Afghan culture, the home they left several years ago as Taliban forces positioned to take over the country.

As they celebrated the end of their first school year, they also commemorated the first anniversary of their arrival in this country.

Sara Amiri and her sister, Seabeh, dance onstage as Denver Public Schools' Multilingual Education department celebrates the end of the year at the Bruce Randolph School. May 17, 2023.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

Seabeh, who's 21, was poised to graduate high school in Turkey, where her family lived before they were allowed to come to the U.S., but was pulled out of classes just weeks before the term ended. When she landed in Denver, she spoke no English and had no transferrable credits. She started the year as a 9th grader.

"Everything was hard and challenging," she told us in Dari, thinking back to her first days at Montbello High School, but things changed. "Now we are getting somewhere, and now I'm enjoying it."

One reason for that turnaround: DPS hooked her family up with Hussai Dastgeer, a navigator who immigrated from Afghanistan decades ago. Dastgeer helped them enroll in classes, find their way to Montbello High's Newcomer Center and figure out how to keep up in a new, difficult environment.

"Here, they had really hard time to get used to the new language," Dastgeer said, beaming as she said Seabeh has come so far since then: "She is so close to graduating. I'm so proud of her."

Hussai Dastgeer translates for Samir Amiri as Dwayne Swift talks about job and college help during a resource fair thrown by Denver Public Schools' Multilingual Education department. May 17, 2023.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

DPS fielded a lot of kids like the Amiri siblings in the 2021-2022 school year, Endres told us, as Afghans moved to Colorado from U.S. military bases. That resulted in an unusual increase in newcomer students, but it ended up paling in comparison to the numbers of South American families, many from Venezuela, who would arrive later. They would all need someone like Dastgeer to help them succeed in school.

"This has been a significant difference, a steady, steady, steady increase," Endres said. "It's different than it's been since I have worked here."

Parents peruse a resource fair held by Denver Public Schools' Multilingual Education department, as they celebrate the end of the school year. May 17, 2023.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

Sary Portillo, who oversees family engagement for the Newcomers program, said they had to change their tactics to accommodate so many sudden arrivals.

"We met families in shelters. We've met them in hotels," she told us. "At some points, there were 15, 20 students at a time that we had to register."

As she and her colleagues met these families, they walked them through what would come next.

"We provided those meetings and just gave the families an overview of what school is like in the U.S., because it's obviously very different from what it is in their home countries," she said. "That gave us opportunities to make sure that families felt welcome, that they felt safe, that they felt secure. And then we just provided some basics, you know: What does a snow day mean in Colorado? What's a late start? What is the the dress code for kids? What's the importance of attendance?"

Still, school is just one part of life that the Newcomers program is built to address.

Though numbers of new students have grown recently, Portillo said the stories she's heard from them are nothing new. Denver has long been a destination for people seeking a new life in this country, even if the general public hasn't noticed.

Many of these kids endured unimaginable hardship on their way to Colorado, Portillo told us. Some walked with their families across a half-dozen borders to get here, through jungles filled with death. Others, like the Amiris, escaped war.

In order to help kids learn English and graduate, multi-language education director Allison Ratchford said DPS must help them deal with that residual stress.

"They've had additional traumas that they've faced in their arrival," she said, "so the purpose of our Newcomer Centers is to do more of a wraparound support for students and families."

Sary Portillo chats with a parent as Denver Public Schools' Multilingual Education department celebrates the end of the year at the Bruce Randolph School in Clayton. May 17, 2023.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

Parents have access to GED classes, language tutoring and help studying for citizenship exams. The centers provide child care and meals.

All the while, Endres said, her team works with teachers and administrators to make sure they understand where students are coming from, how to manage behavior while taking past traumas into account, and offering mental health support. Sometimes they need to move teachers and students around to make sure needs are met. It's not always easy, but she said they're up to the task.

"Nothing's perfect, I don't wanna paint you too rosy of a picture. We've had staffing issues, we've had teachers in tears. Like we've had the hard stuff - this has been hard," she said - and yet: "Our systems are designed to support waves like this, and to always be able to accommodate new multilingual learners in the system. That's our foundation."

Seabeh said she was grateful for the district's help, and told us she might not have graduation in her sights if not for the extra support. Endres, Ratchford and Portillo said they're motivated by similar sentiment voiced by other students. In a world that can feel chaotic, their work gives them ways to feel empowered.

"Immigration is not something I can control and I don't know what will happen in the next couple years," Portillo told us. "But they're here. And if they're here, they're our future. So how are we preparing these kids and our families to better our future in our country? These kids are gonna be our neighbors. They're gonna be our kids, you know, husbands and wives. So how do we make the best for our future now that they're here?"

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