Newcomer/EL Teachers at Carrboro HS Form Dynamic Team
“I’m the type of person who would like to stand in an airport all day long and ask people where they’re going, where they’re from and about their culture. And I get to spend all day long with people from other countries and cultures,” said Carrboro High School Newcomer Teacher, Angela McChesney, one of two recently celebrated 2021 CHCCS Honor Teachers. Her commitment to English learning students and families at CHS has become legendary, but she always emphasizes that credit must be shared across the team of four Newcomer/EL teachers -- Jackie van Hoewyk, Zachary Fehst, Bonnie Carmen and herself. “They're really wonderful colleagues and we're a supportive, collaborative team,” McChesney said. “Each of us brings different strengths to the team.”
More than 100 CHS students carry the designation of English Learner or Newcomer, with many of those students coming from Hispanic countries, though many have arrived in the U.S. from Thai refugee camps, different countries in Africa or other parts of the world. Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools currently has over 1,300 ELL students enrolled, with as many as 85 different languages identified in the school district for the 2020-2021 school year.
“Our team has become like a family and I think the students feel this; they quickly become comfortable with us and will reach out for help with almost anything, at any time of day--leading us to feel more like parents than teachers sometimes, but in the best way,” van Hoewyk said.
As difficult and often terrifying as the consequences of the COVID-19 outbreak were throughout the community, some of the students and families who experienced the highest levels of hardship were the Newcomers. Jobs in the service industry and housekeeping disappeared, and the complex information from public health agencies and government offices was often impenetrable for those who speak little English.
In April 2020, McChesney created a GoFundMe campaign for the CHS students and their families who needed significant financial and essential support. McChesney spread the message to members of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro community, and within one week, the GoFundMe raised over $7,000, and ended up with more than $9,000 to distribute.
The COVD-19 outbreak affected students and their families in ways other than financially. “Their support network is often their friends at school, and it’s a place for socializing. They just lost all of it,” McChesney said. “They were becoming more familiar with the culture and language and then they had to stay at home.”
“We’re not only teachers, but are also frequently called upon to be translators, social workers, counselors, caregivers, cheerleaders,” said Fehst. “We help students navigate the new world they’ve been thrust into, guiding them through the confusion of American schooling (and life). The goal is for them to become full members of our communities, feeling both able and empowered to advocate for themselves and their families, capable of succeeding here in this challenging land of both possibility and limitation.”
McChesney said there are CHS students who have only arrived in the U.S. during the past two months. “A new country, a new language -- they’ve never used computers and they don’t understand email. Think about how overwhelmed the rest of us were about transitioning to remote learning. Their perseverance and resilience amazes me." And many of these students must also operate as translators for the adults in their families, taking time away from school to accompany their parents into banks and doctor’s offices.
The four teachers divide up the subject areas to teach across the grade levels. McChesney teaches English 9 and World History, as required by the state, and she said the challenge is enormous, deciding when to focus her instruction on ways to function in everyday American life, or preparing her students for English 10 and teaching them how to identify figurative language and other literary terms. “It’s so important for them to be able to go into a shop and navigate buying what they need,” she said.
“For all kinds of reasons, our students may only have the equivalent of a third or fourth grade education, but the state of North Carolina still expects all kids to graduate in four years of high school,” McChesney said. If students have little to no background in general history, or even the study of history as a concept, how is it possible to cover all the units of World History, a notoriously “mile wide, inch deep” curriculum?
“The expectations of the high school curriculum for students who come to this country with an elementary school level of education in their own language can seem insurmountable at times and makes their progress year by year all the more rewarding,” van Hoewyk said. “I am always in awe of the challenges our students have faced at such a young age. Most have experienced some form of trauma, have left family behind to come here and are working and going to school at the same time, yet they still come to school with a smile on their faces ready to have fun and learn something. Sometimes it feels like school is the one place they can really be kids and have friends and have fun because when they leave they are essentially weighted down with adult responsibilities.”
Carmen added, “We work to build strong relationships of trust, and our students depend on us for information and confidence building and are not afraid to reach out whenever they have questions or concerns. We work hard to build a strong bond between teachers and students at CHS, and it is a great feeling to watch our students blossom and grow from their first days at CHS until they leave us for their future endeavors.”
“The program has become something the whole school is proud of, and all teachers at CHS work to support the Newcomers,” van Hoewyk said. “Other times, the Newcomer program can feel like a bubble that students don't want to leave because they get so comfortable and feel so nurtured, but eventually we want them to become self-sufficient and have the English skills to advocate for themselves.”
The CHCCS Newcomer Program provides students with intensive instruction in classrooms with their newcomer peers, in order to accelerate both English language acquisition as well as acculturation. All high school Newcomer students attend CHS, middle school Newcomers learn at Culbreth Middle School and elementary school students attend Northside Elementary School. As students gain proficiency, they can enroll at their home schools and continue receiving support from those schools’ EL teachers.