By Published: June 12, 2024

Adria Padilla-Chavez’s classroom at Thornton High School in the Denver suburbs reveals, in many ways, the changing face of Colorado and many other parts of the country.

Padilla-Chavez, a doctoral student in the School of Education at CU Boulder, teaches in the Adams 12 Five Star Schools’ Newcomer Center, which launched in fall 2023. It’s a one-year program for students who have just arrived in the United States.

Woman stands in front of a wall with hand-drawn artwork on sheets of paper hanging behind her

Adria Padilla-Chavez in the Adams 12 Five Star Schools's Newcomer Center. (Credit: School of Education)

 "In the newcomer center we build bridges."

Student bridge models on display at the Newcomer Center. (Credit: School of Education)

Here, international flags line the classroom walls, and signs read “You are welcome here” in multiple languages. Muslim students, many of whom settled around Thornton as refugees from Afghanistan, often greet Padilla-Chavez, who speaks Spanish, with “¿Cómo estás?” Students from Venezuela and Colombia, meanwhile, have learned about fasting for Ramadan.“Many of them have left so much of their family behind,” Padilla-Chavez said. “So we’ve cultivated a really beautiful community where they’ve become each other’s family.”

In Colorado, that community is growing larger.

Over the last school year, districts across the state enrolled thousands of children who were new to the United States—most of them from Central and South America. By April, Denver Public Schools alone had opened its doors to more than 3,500 newcomers.

Silvia Noguerón-Liu is an associate professor of literacy studies at CU Boulder. She said that, throughout Colorado, many teachers were already buckling under the strain of overseeing large class sizes and tailoring their instruction to students with different needs. Now, in her own recent visits to classrooms, she noticed that teachers were managing even more concerns.

“We got a lot of new arrivals in the winter when the school year had already begun,” she said. “It’s really cold. They need winter clothing. They need to learn how to handle snow, how the school system works, what happens every day.”

Noguerón-Liu spearheads a group of faculty members and students from the School of Education who are helping local educators meet the needs of these newcomers. They’re developing educational resources to assist teachers in communicating with students who are learning English. At the same time, Noguerón-Liu acknowledges that teachers need more support as they contend with a multitude of challenges—such as how to take care of their own mental health while working with youth who have experienced trauma. 

With the next school year a few months away, she and her colleagues urge teachers to see newcomer students as an opportunity to improve public education in Colorado for all students. 

“This is our opportunity to do right by young people by treating them humanely and providing them with school environments that are sanctuaries,” Padilla-Chavez said.

Electric spaces

Tania Hogan, executive director of the BUENO Center for Multicultural Education at CU Boulder, sees herself in the newcomer students. She was 5 years old when her family moved from Acapulco, Mexico, to the suburbs of Philadelphia.

Hogan was a painfully shy child, and at school she tried everything she could to hide the fact that she couldn’t speak English: She rarely talked in class and learned how to mimic what other kids were doing.

It wasn’t until fourth grade that one of Hogan’s teachers, Mr. Phillips, took an interest in her. He encouraged her to read and wrote her motivating letters, which he continued to do even after Hogan’s family moved out of state. 

“I learned to read in his class and became obsessed with reading,” Hogan said. “I could not put books down after that.”

She wants teachers in Colorado to know that, like her as a child, newcomer students bring a lot of strengths and knowledge with them.

“They have so many assets already present,” Hogan said. “People often assume newcomer students are coming in as blank slates, but that’s not true. As educators, it’s our job to figure out their hidden talents and build on them.”

Padilla-Chavez said that one of her students is a master fisherman, and others are experts at trading goods in a crowded market.

“The desire to learn within the newcomer center is electric,” she said. “They have knowledge systems and experiences beyond what the U.S. school system can imagine or even measure.”

Deena Gumina, an assistant teaching professor in the School of Education, is careful to emphasize that newcomer students often get pulled into political debates about immigration. But in its 1982 decision in Plyler v. Doe, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that all children, regardless of their immigration status, have a right to a public education. She added that universities like CU Boulder can help schools answer that challenge by recruiting and preparing more bilingual teachers.

“It has always been our job as educators to work with the students who show up in our school spaces,” Gumina said.

Photo of three sets of hands holding pencils with orange sheets of paper showing images of triangles.Students work on math worksheets in the Newcomer Center. (Credit: School of Education)

Migration stories

In early January 2024, as Noguerón-Liu was in the middle of her own winter break, she started noticing new arrivals in the schools she was visiting. She heard the same thing from a few teacher candidates studying at CU Boulder. In their junior and senior years, these students work in K-12 classrooms under the guidance of coaches from the university and professional educators.

Headshot of Silvia Nogueron-Liu

Silvia Noguerón-Liu

headshot of Deena Gumina

Deena Gumina

headshot of vanessa santiago schwarz

Vanessa Santiago Schwarz

Noguerón-Liu dashed off emails to colleagues at CU Boulder, and, within a few days, they had formed an informal team with a timely goal—to help teachers keep pace with the changes in their classrooms.

“We came back from vacation and a group of us who work in elementary education got together to discuss how we can support our student teachers,” Noguerón-Liu said.

She noted that there a few strategies that teachers, even ones who are not bilingual, can implement in their classrooms almost immediately. Noguerón-Liu and her colleagues have developed guides, for example, to lay out sounds that are similar and different in English and Spanish—words with a “th” sound, as in “this” or “thin,” can be tricky.

Other needs run much deeper. Hogan said that the BUENO Center is collaborating with Denver Public Schools to develop a curriculum for newcomer students—a comprehensive guide to help young people transition to the U.S. educational system.

She also leads a team that recently received a New Frontiers planning phase grant from the CU Boulder Research and Innovation Office. Over the next year, the researchers will meet with families new to the United States, inviting them to share their expertise and stories of migration and survival. The team will then use artificial intelligence tools to transform that knowledge into culturally sustaining, STEM-focused learning models that teachers can use in their classroom. Hogan hopes these resources will help educators foster deeper connections with newcomer students and enhance engagement. 

“It’s about building on the knowledge that newcomer families bring with them, their community cultural wealth,” Hogan said. “We’re hoping that telling these stories might be a healing process for newcomers, as well.”

Coping with trauma

Vanessa Santiago Schwarz, an assistant teaching professor in the School of Education, has seen first-hand the joy that newcomer students can add to a community. Her daughters, who are in first and second grades, attend a bilingual elementary school in Denver. She said that one day, their school went on a lockdown, which luckily turned out to be a false alarm. During those scary hours, an older girl whose family had arrived in the United States that winter from Venezuela comforted Santiago Schwarz’s youngest daughter.

“She was just there with my daughter, holding her and comforting her, even though she didn’t know what was going on,” said Santiago Schwarz, who coaches CU Boulder students during their teaching experiences. 

At the same time, she said that many new arrivals have experienced incredible hardships, both in their home countries and during their journeys north. That trauma can “spill over” onto teachers who care deeply about their students—and often feel helpless as children contend with huge, systemic problems like homelessness, hunger and more. Teachers and students alike need more resources for their mental health, Santiago Schwarz said. 

Gumina, who also coaches undergraduate teaching students, agrees. She and Santiago Schwarz often counsel students to take care of themselves and remind them that teachers can’t solve every problem in the world.

“There’s often this expectation of martyrdom from teachers, that saying ‘no’ or setting boundaries is saying ‘no’ to the children,” Gumina said. “I tell my teacher candidates that if you can’t take care of yourself, you can’t show up for your students. If you have eight days of PTO for the year, you should take them.”

Hogan added that her own experiences show the difference a single, compassionate teacher can make in a child’s life. When she became a schoolteacher at a bilingual school in Denver in 2000, she remembered how Mr. Phillips connected to her through writing letters. She started writing letters to her own students, and they wrote back, sometimes about big things and other times about everyday things, like the famed Portuguese soccer player Cristiano Ronaldo.

“I wanted to be that person for all of my kids because he was so inspirational for me,” Hogan said.