Rudsdale Newcomer High School Is a New Kind of School
Rudsdale Newcomer offers community and connection for migrant teens.
Photos by Julie Anderson
Rudsdale Newcomer High School occupies a sunny plot of land not too far from the larger school it’s technically a part of: Rudsdale High on 84th Avenue in East Oakland. A cluster of portable classrooms forms a small courtyard with picnic benches, a Ping-Pong table, and a smattering of fruit trees. On its perimeter, flanking the parking lot, is a small vegetable garden where stalks of corn sway over crops of cucumbers, squash, and pumpkin. It’s a quiet, pleasing, utterly unremarkable setting.
Inside the classrooms, however, Rudsdale Newcomer is totally unlike your average American high school. Though the kids may seem like ordinary students, every one of them has crossed the border between Mexico and the United States at great personal risk, fleeing gang violence, drug cartels, and desperate poverty in Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Mexico. And most of them have come alone.
Despite the traumas they’ve endured, however, the kids come to school eager and ready to learn. In Abraham Falk-Rood’s English language class, they laugh and raise their hands as Falk-Rood moves about the room, pulling baby clothes from a sack, asking them to name each article of clothing, even putting a tiny sock or a sweater on his head for comic relief. Students answer his questions eagerly, then Falk-Rood moves onto the next activity — showing a clip from a movie — so they can practice their listening comprehension skills. Falk-Rood’s classroom is decorated with plants and potted trees, drawings, a couple stuffed animals, and a guitar. An affectionate caricature of him decorates part of the whiteboard, and several posters hang from the walls with captions like “Migration Is Beautiful” and “Immigrants and Refugees: This Is Home.”
The school is, in fact, like a home for many of the students, 90 percent of whom are here without parents. It’s a place where they can not only learn, but also find connection and community. The rest of the kids’ time is spent working long hours, mainly on weeknights and weekends, to support themselves. Harold Lopez, age 19, washes dishes at a restaurant eight hours a day from Friday through Sunday. José Martinez, 18, says he works 10-hour shifts five nights a week in San Jose cleaning commercial buildings and gets only 4½ hours of sleep a night. “That’s about average for these kids,” Falk-Rood remarked. Some of the teenagers are even caring for children of their own.
It was precisely for this reason that Rudsdale Newcomer High was created. Emma Batten-Bowman, who heads the school, said that migrant teens were “dropping out of Oakland Unified at huge rates, so we wondered, ‘how can we catch the newcomers?’”
Sara Green, a graduate student at UC Berkeley’s School of Public Policy and now Rudsdale Newcomer’s full-time social worker, had a proposal. For her master’s thesis, she interviewed 50 newcomer students who’d dropped out and asked them what they needed to remain enrolled in school. The answer: later start times and shorter school days. Furthermore, none of the newcomers had the time or energy for homework on account of their jobs. They also needed smaller classes with extra support and an emphasis on English as a Second Language. Based on these guidelines, Rudsdale Newcomer High was created: the first continuation program strictly for newcomers in California, maybe the whole country. In other words, while there are other schools for recently arrived immigrant students, and also schools for the kids most in danger of dropping out, Rudsdale Newcomer is the only school for kids who fall under both categories.
Classes start at 9:30 and end at 2:30. The kids take the usual four subjects — English, history, math, and science — but most of the curriculum is geared toward practical skills. For example, the kids study contemporary American culture in their English classes and practice math skills using American currency. Wednesdays are devoted to special courses like cooking, music, soccer, and drivers ed. The school also provides job and mental health counseling, as well as help with the legal system and conflict mediation.
Rudsdale Newcomer started with 25 students in its first year. Now in its third year, it has 138 students and is continuing to grow. It’s not the first school that migrant kids from Mexico and Central America attend when they get to Oakland, however. The kids have to be at least 16 and are referred to Rudsdale Newcomer only if they’re in danger of dropping out of other public schools. They enroll with all different levels of preparation; some only have a fourth- or fifth-grade education, many don’t speak English (some don’t speak Spanish either; they speak Mam, a Mayan language prevalent in parts of Guatemala and Mexico). Moreover, the majority of the kids are 18 or 19, older than the average high school student because they’ve needed extra time to catch up on their skills or because of work. Some stay just one year at Rudsdale Newcomer; others remain for two or three.
The feedback from the kids is terrific; they love pretty much everything about the school. Adony Mejia, 19, said, “We have really good teachers here, and we can learn more English than at our old schools.” His friend Harold Lopez added, “they can help you find jobs.” Harold plans to work at an airport; Adony hopes to join the Marines. Veronica Mendoza, 18, dreams of going to college and becoming a nurse. Her friend Corinna Pablo, also 18, wants to become a mechanical engineer.
Of course, the reality right now is very different for these kids. Many are still waiting for their immigration paperwork to move through the legal system, and they have to show up for court dates. It’s a formidable process for teenagers to figure out on their own. Fortunately, the faculty and staff at Rudsdale are determined to help these kids in every way possible. Said Batten-Bowman, “we want students to feel like ‘you graduated; you have more opportunity because you’ve improved your English; you’re leaving here with a résumé; you have an idea of the career you want; you know how to navigate the systems and services.” In this respect, the students at Rudsdale Newcomer High are lucky indeed.
Oakland has many more students than this one tiny school can accommodate. And the number of children coming to the United States from Mexico and Central America keeps growing. Nevertheless, Rudsdale Newcomer provides a potent example of how districts and cities across the country can help these kids to succeed, even under the most challenging of circumstances.
Rudsdale Newcomer loves volunteers. Contact Emma Batten-Bowman for more information about volunteering at firstname.lastname@example.org; the school also welcomes donations, Give.Classy.org/RudsdaleNewcomer.