As part of our Numbers and Narratives: A Year In Review series, we bring you a spotlight on Valeska Muñoz, biology teacher and former head of R.I.S.E. (Recent Immigrant Support and Engagement) academy at Oakland High School.
When Valeska Muñoz became a teacher, she knew from the start that she would be deeply focused on working with the newcomer student population. As a first generation Latina growing up with a mom who left Guatemala for the United States in the midst of a civil war, she learned early on how difficult it is to navigate a new country when the systems in place are not created for you. It’s this dedication that led her to make a shift towards the end of her college career to become a teacher who works directly with newcomer students in Oakland.
“There’s a lot of different structures and systems in place that are suppressing and dismissing Black and brown students.”
Valeska had the unique opportunity to lead the newcomer program (RISE) at Oakland High School, which is focused on deep student and family engagement, including a distance learning version of the Stronger and Clearer Each Time strategy. In this model, students talk with multiple partners to strengthen and clarify their academic ideas. The goal is to make responses stronger each time with better evidence, examples, and explanations; and to make ideas clearer each time by using a topic sentence, logical ways to organize and link sentences, and precise words.
“Having a person that looks like you, represents you, speaks like you, dresses like you… There is just so much evidence that with connections comes success with newcomer students,” shared Valeska. “R.I.S.E. (Recent Immigrant Support and Engagement) is a full comprehensive program that really looks holistically at the child, 360 degrees.”
The Academy welcomes newly-arrived immigrant students and provides them with a sheltered space that supports their transition into the American high school education system. They currently serve over 100 students.
Newcomer students already face unique challenges both in adapting to and learning the languages and systems of a new country, but also navigating a brand new school system. The pandemic added and exacerbated an already difficult situation.
“During the pandemic, we definitely saw that there were large gaps in the program that we had created,” shared Valeska. “A lot of the RISE academy’s historical, pre-pandemic focus was on academic achievement. A lot of energy was spent getting students to the point where they were able to fly and exit the program – to create a bridge and a soft landing. We were asking, how are we going to create a curriculum that is going to support and create success for the students outside of the Academy?”
When the pandemic first hit, Valeska and her colleagues pivoted their focus from academic achievement to helping newcomer families address food insecurity and financial challenges.
RISE was able to quickly adapt to provide meals and financial support to newcomer students and families. Then the question became: “where are the students?” Valeska shared that students who she already had an existing relationship with or who already knew how to navigate tech systems were showing up the most to online classes. It was 9th graders and new arrival students without personal connection to teachers and tech literacy that went missing.
“Distance learning has been an insurmountable challenge of disconnect from the students,” said Valeska. “They don’t have the camera on for many different reasons and we don’t enforce them for many different reasons. So we don’t have visual stimuli of what the kids look like and as a teacher, you don’t have a gage for whether they are getting it or not. It’s really hard to understand what they need and connect at a human level.”
Valeska knows that understanding student academic needs is especially difficult for newcomer students. Pre-pandemic, when content was in English, as a teacher she could walk around the room to pods to check in and translate to get a “dip stick” of where kids are at. With distance learning, there was a desert of checking for comprehension that at best was through facial expressions and at worst with no input in the case when the cameras were off.
The focus then shifted to re-engagement on creating human connections at the beginning of the year via phone calls and home visits, and prioritizing those students for in-person instruction this Spring.
“On Wednesdays what I’ve been doing is when we have our produce delivery from Mandela Coop, after families come to get the produce, I use whatever is left to do home visits so that I can get a visual stimuli to understand what’s going on in their space without being intrusive, but bringing an offering of help and support,” said Valeska.
“That itself has been super instrumental. Now when I see Edgar, Iris, Juan, whoever it is, I understand a little bit more and have a little more context.”
It’s clear that while there are so many challenges, there are also bright spots in this difficult year of transition. As Valeska stressed, the pandemic forced the Academy to be even more holistic about their approach to serving newcomers. OUSD’s Executive Director of Office of English Language Learner Multilingual Achievement, Nicole Knight, said, “I think there are a lot of bright spots throughout our system where teachers and schools found innovative ways to create learning experiences.”
Nicole continued, “We are deeply concerned with the growing crisis on our border. We really try to use enrollment projections to plan ahead. We are building the capacity of all schools to be more responsive to newcomers. I still am concerned about what might come. Specifically the work that may be needed to re-engage the newcomer population who might be here in Oakland but not yet enrolled.”
As we recover, reimagine and return to in-person learning, there is deep work and time that should be focused on one of the most vulnerable populations in our schools. The true reality for newcomers pre and post pandemic is the pressure to stay in school versus drop out to work and provide for families. As Valeska shared, newcomer programs must create creative solutions around paid internships and create wisdom around a true connection with the immigrant experience.
“The pandemic made me further understand what it means to open a newcomer academy. It is not enough to just say we have one. It requires a holistic approach and mindset of the adults serving these students,” she shared.
I am moved by Valeska’s and her academy’s journey towards serving the whole student. As an undocumented newcomer student, I also wanted to be seen by my school as my full self (with strengths, aspirations and hardships), not just as an English Language Learner. I am inspired by how the pandemic has encouraged all of us to recenter on what matters most for our students/families. Thank you for reading.