School district launches program to educate immigrant kids

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WHITFIELD COUNTY, Ga. —

Dalton Public Schools is launching an academy specifically for unaccompanied minors who recently immigrated to the United States.

Teachers were setting up classrooms fit for elementary students but suited for a group of high schoolers when Channel 2’s Kerry Kavanaugh spoke to educators about the new program.

“We are starting at the beginning, " Caroline Woodason said.

Woodason oversees the Dalton School District's English Language Learners (ELL). Dalton is taking ELL to a new level this year by launching the Newcomer Academy.

The academy is being made to meet the needs of high school-aged students who recently emigrated to the U.S. from Central America alone, and ended up in north Georgia with sponsors.

The school district has 7,500 students. 1,800 of them or 25 percent are already considered English language learners. Of that number, 30 are classified as unaccompanied minors, students which educators in the district said they have to teach in an entirely different way.

“The students we are getting are 16 to 20 years old. They have not had any education passed first or second grade, so they have not been in school setting for 10 to 12 years, depending on how old they are. So, that is a huge gap," Woodason said.

Students in Dalton’s Newcomer Academy will learn basic skills, such as language.

“It starts with learning the language, and speaking it, and then reading and writing, so it will be that whole process," academy teacher Russell McCaslin said.

Teachers in the program said they want the students to feel like a part of the class.

“We want to make them feel welcome,” academy teacher Jennifer Ross said.

However, they said students cannot feel welcome in a class they cannot even follow.

"By having these kids have a solid foundation, then they can go back into the classes where they can interact with the other children," Woodason said.

They said they plan for the program to effectively educate the new students while not slowing down the learning experience of the others.

“We are a public school system and we do not check immigration status. If a child comes to our door we want to serve them,” Woodason said. “We believe in what we're doing. We're excited."

“The real challenge is how much assessment and accountability. No matter what level they come to you, they're supposed to be able to graduate in four years from a high school. That doesn't necessarily happen with these kids,” Woodason said.

Woodason said the needs of the children outweigh the accountability.

Dalton Public Schools said it will cost $253,000 for the three teachers dedicated to the 30 students.

The district said they began to budget for the program in the spring.

They said it is unknown how many more immigrant students could show up this school year.