Charleston Co. School District launches Newcomer Center for non-English speaking students

Published: Aug. 11, 2022 at 4:26 PM EDT|Updated: Aug. 11, 2022 at 9:02 PM EDT
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CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - Students who struggle to speak English will now be able to attend the district’s Newcomer Center, located on the R.B. Stall High School Campus.

The center aims to provide an “intensive English acquisition school within the school to help scholars acclimate to the Charleston County School District”.

Stall Executive Principal Steve Larson says the mission of the center is to provide a safe environment for students who are new to the country or have been here for less than two years.

“Many of the students at Stall come from rich cultural backgrounds and we sometimes forget that language is part of that,” Larson said. “There is a temptation to accelerate students into learning our language, yet we need to be careful when doing so to ensure that it isn’t at the expense of their culture.”

The center will provide a space to develop and foster a strong sense of community by engaging students’ families and caregivers in their education, according to the district.

While the center is still being constructed in a new, eight-classroom modular unit, the center is expected to be complete in September. Until then, newcomer students will be in existing trailers next to the future center.

Larson says they expect 80 students to start the year in the Newcomer program with a capacity of around 200. There are currently five teachers that will focus on English and Math. The Newcomer Center is only open for Stall students right now, but they hope to expand in the coming years.

Stall was chosen for the Newcomer Center because it has the highest percentage of English language learners in the state with about 700 of its 1,700 students, according to Larson. Assistant Principal of the Newcomer Center Claudia Newbern says she is excited.

“I think it’s one of the most exciting things that I have ever been a part of,” Newbern said. “I came to the United States 20 years ago. We have always had newcomers. I taught newcomers for years as a teacher here, but the difference now is we have them in a way that we can serve them in every aspect.”

Newbern came to the United States from Colombia and has spent her career teaching ESL students. She says before she never felt like she had enough time to help students enough through a normal classroom. She says the Newcomer program is a game changer.

“It’s a great experience to see the families, talk to them and assure them – because the families are scared too,” Newbern said. “They’re new to the country. It’s a big building. Many of them have never seen a school this big in their lives. It’s just assuring the family that we will take care of them and I think the parents leave feeling there is someone that is going to keep an eye on their child.”

When the idea was first presented to board members in March, it was met with some concerns from school board members. The idea was proposed during a special called audit and finance committee meeting during the same time that the district was discussing controversial attendance lines at North Charleston High School and Stall High School.

The idea of a Newcomer Center for English as a Second Language students came from outgoing principal Jeremy Carrick, according to Chief Operating Officer Jeff Borowy.

“He has a significant number of students who walk into his building without being able to speak a word of English and it’s been a real challenge to get those kids assimilated, make them feel comfortable,” Borowy said at the meeting. “He had talked about having a welcome center, a newcomer center for both students and families in a set-aside environment to make them feel comfortable coming into his campus.”

At the time Board Member Cindy Bohn Coats raised concerns about the optics of moving all of the ESL students out of the main high schools and separating them into a modular unit.

“These students are first and foremost Stall students,” Larson said. “They have access to all the same areas of campus as any other students. Students will still have lunch in the main building, along with elective classes. They will also be transitioned out of the Newcomer Center when their English proficiency has reached a certain level.”

Since then, the district has refined the idea and added some additional details. For example, students will only be allowed to attend the Newcomer Center for three semesters and they will be placed in the program through a registration process. That means it is ultimately optional.

Newbern dispels any idea that students are being segregated and says the center will give students a chance to grow and adapt without being overwhelmed by one of the largest schools in the district.

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