Students, new to the US, find support and camaraderie in Steamboat’s Newcomer Program

Students in the Steamboat Springs School District's Secondary Newcomer Program were generously provided space this year at the Perry-Mansfield Performing Arts School and Camp. The program supports students who are new to the country and new to English.

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Over the past few years, the Steamboat Springs School District has seen an increase in students enrolling who are both new to the country and new to English.

In response, teachers Dani Booth and Tai Nass helped create the Secondary Newcomer Program, aimed at helping middle and high school students adapt both to the school’s culture and its academics.

In 2017, after a great deal of research and planning, Booth and Nass persuaded the Steamboat Springs School Board to contribute funding to the program, which included bringing on two language specialists. 

The program allows students to build a foundation in English while learning the same content as their peers. The goal is to get students to fluency, after which they are provided continued monitoring and support.

This year, with the COVID-19 restrictions, Booth and Nass wanted to keep the newcomers within their own cohort. However, they weren’t able to find a space that could accommodate all 27 students.

Then through some fortuitous connections, they were generously offered space at the Perry-Mansfield Performing Arts School and Camp, where programming has been canceled because of the pandemic. It all came together very quickly, Nass said, with strong district support in providing food, transportation, cleaning and technology.

While most of the students are from Mexico, the program also serves students from Central and South America as well as West Africa, Asia and the Middle East. 

The program also includes classes on culture — helping the students understand their new environment — both the culture of the U.S. and the Yampa Valley.

With many of the students coming with some trauma, they also receive weekly counseling sessions. Some fled violence in their home countries, according to Booth and Nass. They’ve worked with kids who are escaping gang recruitment, fleeing threats from drug cartels and living in dire poverty under dictatorships. They also all face the trauma of leaving home and starting over in an unfamiliar environment.

The core content classes are taught in English, as the kids don’t all speak the same language. And there is a lot of pantomiming, drawing and acting, Nass noted. Some of their kids speak as many as four or five languages, including West African dialects.

And despite the vast differences in culture and language, “it’s incredible to see the camaraderie,” Nass said. “They all help each other out. It’s like a family. It’s a beautiful thing to be a part of. I feel so cool to be their teacher.”

With the amount of time they spend together, Booth said the relationships last far beyond the end of the program. The students all share the same experience of being in a new country, Booth said.

Nass described two boys — one from Central America and one from Senegal — who became such good friends they are now like brothers.

B Torres, the district’s interpreter and community liaison, is an essential part of the program, Booth and Nass said, calling her a lifeline for students and families in the community. Within and beyond the Newcomer Program, Torres ensures hundreds of families have access to the information they need, Booth said.

In a letter nominating Torres for Educator of the Year, one parent wrote, “We know that she is a trustworthy and friendly person who can be counted on to help resolve any questions or needs. For me, the most important thing is communication, and I know that with B, I can communicate in my language. She sends my doubts or concerns to each of the teachers. She is very respectful and polite; I know she will help me and support me. You can talk about anything with her, not just about school. She always finds a word to comfort or advise.”

By cohorting at Perry-Mansfield, the group has been able to meet every day, which Booth and Nass said is a huge benefit as the students learn English.

Learning remotely was challenging for the newcomers in the spring, Booth said. And the curriculum now includes more technology education to help address some of those gaps in proficiency, especially given that some are using the technology for the first time.

Every Friday, the group goes on field trips — some just for fun and outdoor activity and some with an educational component.

“The Steamboat community is quite exceptional and so giving,” Booth said. “We’ve received amazing support from the community in welcoming these students and showing them what Steamboat is all about.”

And this year, they have the beautiful grounds of Perry-Mansfield to enjoy for recreation and outdoor learning.

As the students advance, they begin to take more classes with the rest of their peers, while still having the support of the Newcomer Program.

That integration step can be intimidating, Nass said, as they grow to love and feel comfortable in the program. But they adapt, she said, “once they realize they have the abilities and believe in themselves and know we believe in them.”

Facing new challenges with the funding deficits wrought by COVID-19, Booth and Nass hope the program can stay sustainable, as they continue to see increasing numbers of newcomers. Across the district, Booth and Nass described a need for more resources and staff to support the emerging bilingual and biliteracy programs.

For Booth and Nass, the work comes with great reward.

“They are so cool,” Nass said of her students, in the diversity they bring. “They are kind and respectful. They want to be here. They want to learn, and they take care of each other. It’s such an honor to see the connections they make with each other and with us.”

Booth used the word “magical” several times to describe the program and her experience as a teacher. 

“You meet someone and don’t speak their language, and then as the year develops, you hear their first English sentence and watch throughout the years as they graduate from high school and go to college or into the workforce,” Booth said. “I feel so fortunate to see that growth. We all learn from each other, and the respect is reciprocal. I hope they remember what we have in this classroom — and that the world is good.”

To reach Kari Dequine Harden, call 970-871-4205, email or follow her on Twitter @kariharden.

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