When Jaime arrived in suburban Bensenville from Guatemala five months ago, he knew little about how an American high school operates.
He and other newcomers to Fenton High School arrived not knowing how to operate a combination locker or how to use a laptop. But this summer, Jaime and a few classmates got a crash course at the west suburban public school.
“There was a big need for them to get introduced to just how to do school. That’s the biggest thing, that’s the biggest hurdle,” said Michelle Rodriguez, second language coordinator at Fenton.
In a weeklong newcomers training that wrapped up on Friday, kids covered high school 101. They also took field trips to the post office and the Metra station with the program, which is paid for with help from a federal grant.
Rodriguez said navigating a new school is hard enough, let alone in a different language and culture. She was motivated to try this program because during the school year she found many migrant kids were having to play catch up on basic things.
Over the past few years, Fenton and other local schools have seen an uptick in new immigrant arrivals, particularly from Guatemala. The Illinois State Board of Education does not keep records of student’s immigration status, but it does track new student’s country of birth. In DuPage County where Fenton is located, 323 Guatemalan-born students enrolled in county schools during the 2016-2017 academic year. This year, that jumped up to 578.
At Fenton alone, about 50 new Guatemalan students enrolled last year. Ten students total attended the newcomers program. It was a mix of kids from feeder schools, kids who had already been at Fenton for a few months, and brand new kids like Jaime.
The program was intended for 30 students, but only 10 participated. Rodriguez said some kids moved out of the district or had to work. But she said the biggest challenge has been building trust with the teens and their families.
“You’re in a different place. I think it’s the comfort and also feeling safe,” she said.
Fenton hopes to expand the program to two weeks next year to allow for field trips downtown. Rodriguez said they also want to have a weeklong workshop for parents.
She said one of the students who attended already had completed a semester at Fenton, and he struggled. He told her he wished he’d had this program before.
“He’s actually been really helpful with some of the other students that face a little bit more challenges,” she said.
Rodriguez said she can’t predict how many new migrant students will enroll this year, but she hopes the students who completed the newcomer program this summer will be an important guide for students that follow.