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A public school serving immigrant students becomes the first in NC named for a Latina

Sylvia Méndez tours a new school named after her in High Point, N.C. She stands in a colorful library full of books along the walls, a TV in the corner and has her hand placed on a chair next to a desk where books are on display in a diagonal pattern.
Courtesy of Guilford County Schools
Sylvia Mendéz tours the new school named after her in High Point, N.C. Méndez paved the way for California schools to be integrated in a historic court case that preceded Brown v. The Board of Education.

José Oliva remembers being a student at Guilford County Schools’ original newcomers school in Greensboro back in 2011. He was 15 years old, and had just arrived from Guatemala when he first walked the halls.

“The first person I actually met was a refugee from Iraq. He looked at me from far away and got so happy, almost as if he knew me, “ Oliva said.

The boy ran to Oliva and greeted him with “Assalaamu alaikum” in Arabic. He apparently thought Oliva, with his dark curly hair and similar complexion, might also be from Iraq.

“I thought that’s how you said ‘hello’ in English,” Oliva said, grinning, “because I didn’t know how to speak English at the time.”

A year later, Oliva transitioned to another public school in Guilford County, equipped with lifelong friendships and a solid foundation in English. That’s how the newcomers school model works.

When a student in third through eleventh grade arrives from another country and enrolls in Guilford County Schools, they spend their first year here at a newcomers school, until they’re ready to transition to a neighborhood school.

Now that the original school is bursting with new students, the district is expanding to a second school in High Point.

The new Sylvia Méndez Newcomers school is also the first public school in North Carolina’s history to be named for a Latina. Méndez paved the way for California schools to be integrated in a historic court case that preceded Brown v. The Board of Education.

Influx in immigrant students leads Guilford County to expand to second newcomers school

A portrait of José Oliva, an alum of Doris Henderson Newcomers School and Guildford County Schools' chief of staff.
Lynn Hey
for WUNC
José Oliva is an alum of the Doris Henderson Newcomers School and now serves as Guilford County Schools' chief of staff.

In North Carolina, Guilford County Schools pioneered the free-standing newcomers school. Since 2008, the district has operated a public school in Greensboro designed to serve recent immigrants and refugees. With a rapid influx of immigration, the district opened its second newcomers school this week.

Principal Christian Walter says the need is great. The Doris Henderson Newcomers School in Greensboro typically enrolls about eight to 10 families every week. The students come from more than 50 different countries, many from across Africa, the Middle East and Latin America.

Immigration is growing across the state, and Guilford County is a hub for refugee resettlement. Enrollment at this school nearly doubled last year. More than 200 students arrived during the course of the school year, and they all have specific needs.

“Many of our students came from areas of turmoil, whether they are refugees or they're immigrants,” Walter said.

The school’s goal is to acclimate students to U.S. school culture. Teachers here teach grade-level classes, such as in science or math, but are also trained to teach English as a second language. The school also partners with UNC Greensboro to offer counseling to students dealing with trauma.

The school has a food pantry, a clothing closet, and its own social worker, Grace Migui. It's her job to think about what students need to attend school.

“Do they need shoes? Do they need clothes? A lot of times they don't have the clothes that they need for the weather,” Migui said.

The school even has an onsite laundry room students' families can use.

Principal Christian Walter sits down with high school students in the cafeteria at the Doris Henderson Newcomers school in Greensboro.
Lynn Hey
Principal Christian Walter sits down with high school students in the cafeteria at the Doris Henderson Newcomers school in Greensboro.

Role models are an especially important component to the school. Migui, Principal Walter and some of the teachers are immigrants themselves. Walter moved from Argentina to North Carolina to teach ESL.

“When I came to the United States, 23 years ago, I did it with a bachelor's degree, with a job offer and speaking the language, and it was still hard,” Walter said. “Just imagine how hard it is for students.”

When he first taught at the newcomers school, Walter used to tutor José Oliva on Saturday afternoons.

“Now he’s my boss!” Walter said, with a proud smile.

Today Oliva is Guilford County Schools’ chief of staff. Given the rapid enrollment at the newcomers school, the district decided to open a second school.

The Sylvia Méndez Newcomers School Opens Its Doors

Courtesy of Guilford County Schools
Governor Roy Cooper helps students of the Sylvia Méndez Newcomers School cut the ribbon at the school's opening.

“I'm always thinking from the perspective of immigrant families, Latino families, but also the community in general,” Oliva said.

The newcomers school model helps the community because it concentrates the resources these students need, and prepares them to succeed when they move on to the district's other schools. And it doesn't cost Guilford County Schools any more to staff. The district moves around the resources it already has.

“It's kind of distributing the dollars in a way that supports students the best, I think, and you know, there is a clear need,” Oliva said.

“I cannot even imagine myself coming to school to America, and just going to a comprehensive, traditional high school, by myself,” Oliva added. “I felt like I was better prepared to go into my next chapter as a result of the newcomers school.”

Oliva went on to take community college courses at his next school, then get a bachelor’s degree.

Today he's one of the youngest administrators working in Guilford County Schools' central office. He spoke at the opening of its second newcomers school.

“Today is a historic day, not only for Guilford County, but for the immigrant and refugee community,” Oliva said at the podium.

Méndez attended the ribbon cutting ceremony herself, and was surprised and moved to find the school filled with recent immigrants.

Oliva stood alongside Méndez, Principal Walter and Governor Roy Cooper as they cut the ribbon on the new school, which opened to students this week.

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story said Oliva and other district leaders decided to open a second school when, in fact, the school board made the ultimate decision in a split vote.

Liz Schlemmer is WUNC's Education Reporter, covering preschool through higher education. Email:
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