Fort Worth TX’s International Newcomer Academy has a new home

The International Newcomer Academy in Fort Worth, a school for young immigrants and refugees, is moving into a new home.

The International Newcomer Academy in Fort Worth, a school for young immigrants and refugees, is moving into a new home.

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A Fort Worth academy for new immigrants and refugees has a new home after weeks of uncertainty about their future.

Fort Worth school officials plan to move the International Newcomer Academy to an empty school building about a mile east of Arlington Heights High School. District officials this year announced plans to move the district’s administrative offices to the converted department store that currently houses the academy, raising concerns among school supporters that the district would split the program into multiple locations.

Clint Bond, a district spokesman, said officials plan to completely relocate the academy to the new building. The need to keep the school together in a single location is a main topic of conversation with the school’s stakeholders, Bond said.

The school’s new building at 3813 Valentine Street is the former home of the Middle Level Learning Center, an alternative school for grades 6-8 students. The district closed the Middle Level Learning Center after the need for specialized services decreased during the COVID-19 pandemic, Bond said.

Welcome place for new immigrants and refugees

The academy works with students who have recently arrived in the United States, many of them as refugees fleeing conflict in their home countries. Students spend a year or two at the school, where teachers help them build their English skills and teach them the course materials they need to master before moving to other schools in the district. Approx. 150 students are registered at the academy.

Faiha al-Atrash, the school’s parent coordinator, said she was pleased that the district plans to keep the academy together in a single location. She had worried how students would be affected if the district decided to split the school. The school is an important part of introducing its students to life in the United States, she said. Students who come to school adjust to a new life and culture they are not familiar with as they learn to navigate a new school system, she said. The school gives them a welcoming place to begin this process with other students who are in the same situation, she said.

Many of the school’s students turn up in Fort Worth after having had limited education, al-Atrash said. In some cases, circumstances in their home countries prevented them from going to school at all, she said, making the academy their first experience school. This means that these students have to inform their peers about years of course material before they move to a traditional school. Typically, said al-Atrash, they have to do it even if they learn a new language.

“Many of them don’t speak a word of English,” she said.

According to al-Atrash, it is also important for the families of the students to keep the school together on a single campus. The school receives donations and other support from churches and other organizations, she said, and much of that support goes to the students’ families. For example, this month al-Atrash sent donated furniture to one of the school’s new students. If the district decided to split the program into three or four locations, the support and attention of these groups would also be split, 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 thrilled to learn that district officials had decided to keep the school together. Had officials split the school across multiple locations, they would not have been able to recreate the same sheltered, supportive environment that the academy now offers its students, she said.

Students come to the school from a range of academic backgrounds, she said. Some never went to school, learned to read and write in their own language, or learned to use a computer. Others went to school in their home countries but never learned the Latin alphabet, which makes reading and writing in English a challenge. Others may have gaps in their schooling, meaning they will have to catch up on material they never learned, she said.

The academy’s teachers have completed extensive, specialized training to help students learn course material even as they study English, Desmond said. If the school had been split into three or four locations, she doubts that the district would have had enough teachers to complete the training. It would probably also have meant splitting up teaching teams. The school’s teachers are more cooperative than a typical school, she said, so splitting these teams would have disrupted the way teachers did their job.

The school also helps students feel more at home for the first year or two in the United States than they would in a regular school, she said. The school’s students come from dozens of countries, but the fact that they are all newcomers makes it easy for each of them to feel comfortable, she said. Teachers and administrators celebrate these cultural differences, she said. Two years ago, the school hosted a multicultural fair where students were invited to share traditional music and dance from their home countries. The acceptance Desmond saw was far higher than what she would expect in a regular school, she said.

“There is a certain magic that occurs when all of our students and teachers are together,” she said. “Students can relax and be themselves.”

The division of the school 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 aimed at newcomers, she said. If the district had split up the school and embedded parts of it on three or four campuses, that library would have been split up in three or four ways so that every student would not have access to most of these books.

Desmond said she was happy and relieved that district officials were listening to what teachers, students, parents and partners in the community said was important to the future of the academy.

“My prayers have been answered,” she said. “They hold us together.”

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Silas Allen is an education reporter focused on challenges and possible solutions in the Fort Worth school system. Allen is a graduate of the University of Missouri. Prior to joining the Star Telegram, he covered education and other topics in newspapers in Stillwater and Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. He also served as the news editor for the Dallas Observer, where he wrote on K-12 and higher education. He was born and raised in southeast Missouri.

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