Peer-to-peer mentorships help newcomers

Peer-to-peer mentorships help newcomers ease in to high school life
Posted on 05/05/2023
Morganton, NC – Thursday, April 6, 2023

Seven high school students gather at a round table in a quiet room at Freedom High School. At first, their mood reflects the room. They exchange shy giggles and reticent stares. But with encouragement in their native language of Spanish from bilingual Assistant Principal Ashley Abee and Parent Educator Miranda Summerell, one-by-one they start to open up. They share stories of coming to America, the difficulties of grasping concepts of reading, writing and arithmetic with a limited knowledge of English, balancing major cultural differences and missing food and family from home.

Abee has assembled this group for an important reason. Because of their past experiences, tenacity, talents and eagerness to help others, the school relies on these students to be ambassadors for newcomers.

Abee established this official ambassador program last semester to ease the impact language and cultural barriers can have on newcomers. New students and their families with limited English or English that is very different from what they learned in their native countries need help navigating enrollment, course selection and high school life in general.

Lannie Simpson, English Learner director for Burke County Public Schools, said, “This is a great program at Freedom where Ms. Abee recruits English learners to serve as student ambassadors. They buddy with a newcomer student with the same native language. They show the student around and serve as a point person for student-level questions. Ms. Abee does a great job planning group activities that include the ambassadors and the newcomers. Leveraging our students' multilingual assets creates a win-win situation for our students. We are proud of the work that our multilingual students are accomplishing at Freedom High School.”

Abee said, “Last year I found myself pulling students to interpret for us and help welcome in new students. I would pull them from elective classes, not their core subjects, to talk with new students and their families. These are great students with great work ethics and a willingness to volunteer to help others. So I thought, why not make it more official. The students get badges with their name, photo and title showing they are ambassadors and special permission to leave class and assist in the office or showing new students around.”

Of the seven students sitting around the table, five have been here less than four years. One less than a year. They remember when they were the newcomers and someone helped them.

Eleventh grader Gaspar said, “I like to help others who don’t have the knowledge. It’s nice to help others and it feels nice.”

Fellow 11th grader Gustavo said, “I was in the same situation as them one time. When I had help from people who helped me, it made me feel good.”

Jose, one of two seniors in the group, said, “I love to help the new kids.”

Abee surprised the seniors with news that for their participation as ambassadors they will receive a special cord to wear at graduation. Abee, “I have seen how much it has helped them grow to help others learn. School culture can be intimidating. And to come to a school as big as Freedom. They have developed skills in helping others and using their language skills. But beyond the classroom, they are involved in chorus and clubs, playing soccer and being leaders in project-based learning activities.”

Abee and Summerell are also helping students as prom night approaches. They have secured dresses for the girls and for one of the students who recently lost her mom, they want to help make the night extra special for her. Abee said, “It weighed on my mind that she wouldn't have a mother figure to get the dress, and then there is the cost. Mrs. Summerell and I had a conversation and decided her ‘Freedom Mamas’ would take care of her and a small group of others. We want their night to be as special for them as we can help make it.”

The students have assimilated well to high school life in America and are looking forward to bright futures. Most will be first generation high school graduates with plans to go off to college and give back to the community in fields such as firefighting, veterinary services, therapy, art and psychology.

Freedom Principal Shanda Epley said, “I am so proud of our student ambassadors.They are role models for our newcomers and will continue to encourage them to stay the course and stay in school. I am thankful for the knowledge and understanding they bring to the table. Ms. Abee’s willingness to think outside of the box to support our English learners has proven to be successful with our ambassadors. Mrs. Summerell, our parent educator, has built a great rapport with our ambassadors, and all of our English learner students. I look forward to other opportunities we have to offer our EL students in the future as well.”
In compliance with federal law, Burke County Public Schools administers all educational programs, employment activities, and admissions without discrimination against any person based on gender, race, color, religion, national origin, age, or disability.