A Fort Worth academy for recent immigrants and refugees has a new home, after weeks of uncertainty about its future.
Fort Worth school officials plan to move the International Newcomer Academy to a vacant school building about a mile east of Arlington Heights High School. District officials announced plans this year to move the district’s administrative offices into the converted department store that currently houses the academy, creating concerns among the school’s supporters that the district would divide the program among several sites.
Clint Bond, a spokesman for the district, said officials plan to move the academy in its entirety to the new building. The need to keep the school together at a single location was a major theme of conversations with the school’s stakeholders, Bond said.
The school’s new building, at 3813 Valentine St., is the former home of the Middle Level Learning Center, an alternative school for students in grades 6-8. The district closed the Middle Level Learning Center after the need for its specialized services dropped during the COVID-19 pandemic, Bond said.
Welcoming place for recent immigrants and refugees
The academy works with students who are new arrivals in the United States, many of them as refugees fleeing conflict in their home countries. Students spend one or two years at the school, where teachers help them build English skills and teach them the course material they need to master before they transfer to other schools in the district. About 150 students are enrolled at the academy.
Faiha al-Atrash, the school’s parent coordinator, said she was pleased the district plans to keep the academy together at a single site. She had worried about how students would be affected if the district decided to divide the school. The school is a critical part of its students’ introduction to life in the United States, she said. Students who come to the school are adjusting to a new life and a culture they’re unfamiliar with, while learning to navigate a new school system, she said. The school gives them a welcoming place to start that process alongside other students who are in the same situation, she said.
Many of the school’s students show up in Fort Worth having had limited schooling, al-Atrash said. In some cases, circumstances in their home countries prevented them from going to school at all, she said, so the academy is their first experience school. That means those students need to catch up with their peers on years’ worth of course material before they move into a traditional school. Typically, al-Atrash said, they must do it even as they learn a new language.
“Many of them speak not a word of English,” she said.
Keeping the school together at a single campus is also important for students’ families, al-Atrash said. The school receives donations and other support from churches and other organizations, she said, and much of that support flows on to students’ families. For example, this month, al-Atrash sent donated furniture to the home of one of the school’s new students. If the district had decided to divide the program among three or four campuses, those groups’ support and attention would be divided, as well, she said.
Teachers help students learn English and course material
Windy Desmond, a sixth- and seventh-grade reading teacher at the academy, said she was ecstatic when she learned district officials had decided to keep the school together. Had officials split the school among several campuses, they couldn’t have replicated the same sheltered, supportive environment the academy offers its students now, she said.
Students come to the school with an array of academic backgrounds, she said. Some never went to school, learned to read and write in their own languages or learned to use a computer. Others went to years of school in their home countries, but never learned the Latin alphabet, which makes learning to read and write in English a challenge. Others may have gaps in their schooling, meaning they need to catch up on material they never learned, she said.
Teachers at the academy have been through extensive, specialized training to help students learn course material even as they learn English, Desmond said. If the school had been split among three or four campuses, she doubts the district would have had enough teachers who had been through that training. It also likely would have meant splitting up teaching teams. The school’s teachers are more collaborative than those in a typical school, she said, so dividing those teams would have disrupted the way teachers did their jobs.
The school also helps students feel more at home than they would in a regular school during their first year or two in the United States, she said. The school’s students come from dozens of countries, but the fact that they’re all newcomers makes it easier for each of them to feel comfortable, she said. Teachers and administrators celebrate those cultural differences, she said. Two years ago, the school held a multicultural fair in which students were invited to share traditional music and dance from their home countries. The level of acceptance Desmond saw was far greater than what she’d expect to see in a regular school, she said.
“There is a certain magic that occurs when all of our students and teachers are together,” she said. “The students are able to relax and be themselves.”
Splitting the school up would have created logistical problems that would have been difficult to overcome, Desmond said. For example, the school’s library has a large collection of books that are geared toward newcomers, she said. If the district had split the school and embedded parts of it on three or four campuses, that library would have been split three or four ways, leaving each student without access to most of those books.
Desmond said she was happy and relieved that district officials listened to what teachers, students, parents and community partners said was important for the academy’s future.
“My prayers have been answered,” she said. “They’re keeping us together.”