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Immigrant students celebrate high school graduation

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) – Laura Ramirez was nervous on her first day at U.S. Grant High School, which isn’t an uncommon feeling for a freshman student starting at a new school.

But unlike most of her classmates, Ramirez was also a new resident of the United States, unable to speak English, unfamiliar with the American school system and had no idea what to expect.

“I was really scared,” said Ramirez, who remembered not being able to understand other students, teachers or the morning announcements on the loud speakers.

Four years later Ramirez is a high school graduate, headed for college and ready to launch the life her parents had in mind when they immigrated to the United States.

“It’s amazing when I look at how much I have achieved during these four years,” said Ramirez, who grew up in Guanajuato, Mexico, before moving to south Oklahoma City.

Ramirez is one of 32 senior students at U.S. Grant who immigrated to the United States during their teenage years and was placed in the school’s English Language Learner Newcomer program.

The students received targeted support throughout high school, but English teacher Logan Curtis wanted to expand the program during the senior year to help bridge the gap between high school and higher education.

“I noticed they weren’t getting that true senior experience, they weren’t getting the college visits, they weren’t getting the FAFSA workshops, they weren’t getting what they needed in order to be successful after high school,” Curtis told The Oklahoma (http://bit.ly/2r8s8WF ).

Some of the students came with high school credits from their native country, while others had to take freshman-level classes despite being 16 or older.

The nontraditional path often meant missing out on classes where college recruiters often went. It was also hard for some students to address their unique needs within a larger sea of students.

“Some of these students may not have a Social Security number and want to ask how they can still go to college, but they don’t ask that question sitting in a room full of other students,” Curtis said.

With help from the district’s central office, Curtis began creating opportunities for the students to work on their post-high school plans together. A group that works with undocumented students was brought in to talk about college options and Curtis‘ classroom became a hub for the students to work on scholarship essays and college applications.

“They were in a safe space with their peers who have been in the classes with them,” Curtis said. “They could be comfortable and ask their questions clearly.”

As the end of the school year approached, Curtis thought a ceremony to recognize their graduation would be a great way to end the program. U.S. Grant recently put on a newcomer graduation, which included Spanish translation.

“My grandparents don’t speak English so they will be able to have a good time,” said Reyna Velasco, who came to the United States last year.

Velasco plans to join the Air Force after high school and said the newcomers program helped her connect with other immigrant students.

“I got to meet people who were like me, struggling like me, so I could adapt easier,” Velasco said.

Most of the graduating class of immigrant students are from Mexico, although there is one student from Syria. Three of the students finished high school with a 4.0 grade-point average and Curtis said many of the students attended night and weekend classes to catch up.

The Oklahoma City school system is majority Hispanic and nearly 30 percent of students are classified as English language learners, according to district data.

While the majority of students are U.S. citizens or have some type of legal standing, there is a sizable population of immigrant students in the district, some who are undocumented.

The national tone toward immigration has, at times, become hostile, and U.S. Grant principal Greg Frederick seemed to address that hostility when he spoke at the immigrant student graduation.

“As long as I’m the leader of U.S. Grant High School, this place of learning will be open to all,” Frederick said from the podium.

Sara Marin, an English language learner instruction facilitator, said honoring the students helped draw attention to their accomplishments and broadened the expectations of other teachers.

“This class has really showed teachers what ELL (students) are capable of doing,” Marin said. “They may need a little more time or support, but they can get there.”

Curtis said the students had the ability to graduate but often needed some extra help and understanding.

“They all come in with individual stories, their own struggles and their own reasons for coming to the United States,” Curtis said after the ceremony. “For so many of them the thing you hear is their parents wanted better opportunities for them. We want to make sure that opportunity is possible.”


Information from: The Oklahoman, http://www.newsok.com

Source: www.washingtontimes.com stories: Politics

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