Blog Series
Jun 29, 2021

Supporting Newcomers Through a Community School Model

Amber Hu
Blog Series: Educating the Whole Child

A Shared Learning Initiative, organized by the Learning Policy Institute and the California Partnership for the Future of Learning, creates opportunities for organizers and local parent, student, and community leaders to learn about and experience evidence-based and equitable practices alongside researchers, advocates, educators, and district and state policymakers. In November 2019, Shared Learning Initiative participants spent a day at Oakland International High School. This interactive blog provides a look inside this school serving newcomer students.

Colorful murals decorate the entrance to Oakland International High School, welcoming students, staff, and visitors to this small-by-design community school in the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD). Tucked away on a quiet street of a busy Oakland neighborhood, the school is a sanctuary for its nearly 400 students, all of whom are recently arrived immigrants—or newcomers. As part of the Internationals Network, Oakland International combines a commitment to rigorous academics, linguistic dignity, and bilingualism with a high-touch community school infrastructure. The result is a school that excels at preparing students academically and linguistically for their new lives in the United States.

Students at Oakland International represent 27 countries and more than 30 languages. Some are refugees escaping conflict in their home countries, and many arrive with gaps in their education experience. In 2019, more than one third of students were unaccompanied minors. All are English learners. Although staff recognize students’ difficult histories and challenging circumstances, they also celebrate and tap into students’ unique assets. As Learning Lab Co-Director Lauren Markham explains, “We can make a list all day long of the challenges students bring into the classrooms and what struggles they might have, but we want to turn the lens to the assets and strengths that they’re bringing.”

As a community school, Oakland International is well positioned to build relationships with students and families and to connect them to a broad array of programs, services, and supports by leveraging partnerships. Community schools are an evidence-based model organized around four key pillars: integrated student supports, expanded and enriched learning time and opportunities, family and community engagement, and collaborative leadership and practices. Through its attention to the four pillars and its explicit focus on English language acquisition and preparation for college, career, and community success, Oakland International is raising expectations and expanding opportunities for its students.

Student Wellness as a Precursor to Learning

An on-site Wellness Center functions like a one-stop shop for students to access a variety of supports, from emergency housing and food to legal assistance or mental health services. For medical, counseling, and health education services, Oakland International partners with Oakland Technical High School (Oakland Tech), just five blocks away. Students from both schools are served by TechniClinic, a health clinic located on the Oakland Tech campus. Managed by La Clínica de la Raza, TechniClinic is one of OUSD’s school-based health centers, a districtwide approach to addressing disparities in education, health, and life outcomes for students. Because many Oakland Tech students have access to medical care through their parents’ insurance, the clinic would be underutilized were it not for the Oakland International students. Through the partnership, students from Oakland International—many of whom do not have medical insurance—have access to free and confidential health care, removing a common barrier to regular school attendance.

Responding to COVID-19

In Oakland and around the country, COVID-19 took a disproportionate toll on communities of color, especially newcomers and recent migrants. A survey of Oakland International students early on in the pandemic underscored the destabilizing impact of the coronavirus and its collateral consequences. Forty percent of Oakland International students were working full time, due, in part, to the need to help support their families after one or more of their parents lost their jobs. Another 40% were working part time or had primary responsibility for taking care of younger siblings, including supporting their distance learning. To support students and families, the school:

  • Created an interactive virtual school portal to serve as a dynamic and visually interesting way for students to access what they needed for virtual learning and other supports.
  • Activated a system of checking in with students and providing tutoring support by identifying additional adults—besides classroom teachers—who could work with students outside of traditional school hours so they did not fall behind in their schooling.  
  • Raised more than $100,000 to distribute to students and families for housing, food, and other basic needs.
  • Assisted with the myriad of paperwork required to file for unemployment or apply for direct government support.
  • Held a weekly food pickup on-site and delivered 70 food boxes per week to families.

Looking ahead to the 2021–22 school year, Oakland International has adjusted and expanded programs to meet the needs and realities of their students’ lives. Internships are being redesigned, for example, to enable students who have regular jobs to earn school credit while working. The school is also expanding its career and technical education support and is planning to offer classes on Saturdays and during other nonstandard hours in an effort to recognize and support students who must work to provide for themselves and their families. 

Authentic Learning In and Out of the Classroom

Oakland International cultivates a learning community that supports the academic success of its students both during the traditional school day, through project-based learning, and after school, through sports and other enrichment programs. Peer tutors and “newcomer assistants” (staff members who provide individualized support and tutoring after school and on the weekends) add another layer of support. Classes at Oakland International combine warmly supportive practices and rigorous academics grounded in three of the school’s shared core values:

  1. Heterogeneity and collaboration: Lessons are designed to integrate, support, and differentiate instruction for students with varied levels of English language acquisition.
  2. Integration of content and language learning: Rather than attending separate classes for English language instruction and core academic subjects, students at Oakland International learn English while learning other academic content.
  3. Experiential learning: The school’s project-based curriculum is rooted in students’ lives, communities, and current events.

Powerful academic growth, language acquisition, and social-emotional development also occur outside of the regular school day. For example, a partnership with Soccer Without Borders provides after-school programming that marries soccer with community building and academic and language supports. The model reflects Oakland International’s belief that language learning happens all the time: through interactions with classmates and school staff, during academic classes, and while playing soccer. And most importantly for many students, the program connects them to a supportive community in which youths from different countries who speak different languages are able to connect and bond over the universal language of soccer.

Community Walks Build Understanding and Relationships

Oakland International employs a variety of strategies to engage and support families, including English as a second language classes (many parents of Oakland International students are also English learners), a communal garden and cooking classes, a legal services clinic, and college and career information nights. All of the services and supports for families are grounded in a commitment to building respectful and trusting relationships. Surveys and focus groups provide an ongoing mechanism to solicit input from parents and caregivers, as do informal gatherings like a monthly “Coffee With Counselors.”  

Two practices—home visits and community walks—take teachers and staff out of their familiar school surroundings and into the homes and neighborhoods of their students and families. During community walks, which are designed and led by students and families, teachers are introduced to important neighborhood landmarks and cultural centers and meet with community leaders. Walks also provide an opportunity for school staff to meet with families in their homes or another community gathering place to discuss families’ questions, concerns, and hopes for their students and the school. Because Oakland International students come from many diverse backgrounds, cultures, and experiences, these walks play an important role in the development of trusting relationships and in the undoing of implicit bias. The walks also flip the script on who is teaching and who is learning—teachers become the students, and students and families become the teachers, sharing their expertise, resources, and assets.

Podcast: Getting to know your students through a neighborhood tour

On a community walk with Yemeni-American students from Oakland International High School, staff joined midday prayers at the Oakland Islamic Center, shared a meal at a student's house, and talked with students about their future dreams. A student journalist from Mills College captured the experience for KALW Crosscurrents.

Listen to the podcast >

Continuity, Growth, and Shared Leadership

Oakland International fosters a culture of relational trust, shared responsibility, and stability—all key elements of a high-functioning school. Site-based committees bring stakeholders together to analyze issues of concern and develop strategies for addressing them. The site leadership team includes the principal and assistant principal, community school manager, and leaders from grade-level teacher teams. The wellness team and coordination of services team engage additional staff members, as do departmental teams, which meet regularly.

Key contributors to Oakland International’s success are its stable staffing—research shows that teacher and principal turnover negatively impacts student achievement—and its investment in staff and leaders. Founding Principal Carmelita Reyes led the school for 12 years, including a few years as Co-Principal with the current Principal, Veronica Garcia Montejano. Lauren Markham served for many years as the school’s Community School Manager and now co-leads the school’s Learning Lab, along with longtime math teacher and former Assistant Principal David Hansen. This continuity has been crucial to building the culture of collaboration, trust, and shared purpose.

Oakland International also taps the leadership and expertise of its teachers and alumni to build both school and district capacity to meet the unique needs of newcomer students. The school has developed its own teacher apprenticeship program, designed to expand the corps of teachers with the knowledge, skills, and disposition to work with newcomers. Prospective teachers learn and work side by side with master teachers and participate in the school’s teacher-led professional development while completing their credential coursework. The Learning Lab, for its part, builds capacity of educators, nonprofits, district personnel, and other members of the education community in both OUSD and throughout the San Francisco Bay Area to support the success of newcomer students. Through school site visits, professional development workshops, and research projects, the Learning Lab spreads best practices for serving newcomers, a significant and growing population throughout the state.

Oakland International alumni return as school employees, working in the school office, classrooms, and after-school programs. Not only are staff pipeline models like these evidence-based, but they also help build a community of adults who understand what students are going through and how to best support them. One graduate who returned to the school as a Newcomer Assistant shared what drew her back to Oakland International: “My younger sister has struggled with mental health issues because of the separation from my parents, migration, all of that.… I realized I want to help other youth like my sister. I came back here to see what it’s like to work in the field with newcomers.” She now works as a Case Management Safety Lead, and her goal is to become a school counselor.

Ingredients for Success

Oakland International’s high-touch community school model provides the relational glue and comprehensive supports that are key to student success. In 2019, 93% of its students graduated within 5 years (see “Learn More About Extended-Year Graduation” below), and 59% had passed the rigorous courses required for admission to California state universities. By comparison, English learners in OUSD had a graduation rate of only 62% and a college and career readiness rate of 26%. Newcomers districtwide had an overall graduation rate of 42.6%, and just 21% graduated with the courses required for admission to a state university.

Just as importantly, Oakland International students feel motivated, empowered, and connected to the school and the larger community. As one student shares, “The school has helped me a lot in preparing me to go to college. They connected me to many programs outside the school, like internships or volunteer programs, which have prepared me to go to college with experience being a leader and [knowing] how to use my voice.”

Learn More About Extended-Year Graduation