School builds ‘Newcomer Experience’ to teach recent immigrants

In a city of enduring legacies, a northeast Minneapolis Catholic School is leaning into the future of its neighborhood by embracing its past.

Decades before Charles Pillsbury and Cadwallader Washburn built the flour mills that put Minneapolis on the map, a group of nuns and Polish immigrants established a school to teach their children.  

The Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet opened St. Anthony of Padua School in 1853. Over the years it has evolved into what is now called St. John Paul II Catholic School, but its mission has never changed.

"St. John Paul II Catholic School has been a home for immigrant children," explains its principal Tricia Menzhuber. "A lot of our donors talk about how their parents came here, only speaking Polish, and working with the sisters and the priests here to learn American culture and also keep their own culture vibrant and beautiful."

Northeast Minneapolis is still home to a vibrant immigrant community, but the corners of the world they represent has dramatically changed. 

Many of the 191 preschool through eighth-grade children at St. John Paul II are from Ecuador, but there are also children of families from Ethiopia, Eritrea and Ukraine. Their teachers here intentionally refer to them not as students, but scholars.

"We try to do our best to celebrate and enjoy the beautiful cultures in our school, but also help them to learn English and get the education that they need to be successful here in the United States," said Menzhuber.

But the teachers here are shifting their methods to embrace a recent trend among the families who are coming to the school with their children. More of them have recently immigrated to the Twin Cities with little to no English-speaking abilities. Four years ago the school had one immigrant scholar who had been in Minnesota for less than a year. That number has now swelled to 17.

"With the war that’s happening in Ukraine, we have about three refugee families right now that came to us through camps in Poland," said Menzhuber.

With guidelines provided by the Minnesota Department of Education, Menzhuber and her teachers constructed their own program called the Newcomer Experience. 

It’s designed specifically for recent non-English speaking immigrants with the goal of slowly integrating them into mainstream classes over the course of three years.  
The Newcomer Experience is essentially a three-part program.  

"Obviously, the first one is academic and language support," said Menzhuber. 

In this segment, the children are grouped together to learn English and also have a native language class in Minnesota social studies. Additionally, they work with a math tutor speaking their own language.

The second phase focuses on social and emotional support. 

"So, helping them with acclimating to this culture while still preserving their own culture," Menzhuber emphasized.

The third phase focuses on the families.  

"It’s really trying to help our families understand the culture, what resources are available to them, and how to best support their children here, while at the same time honoring the great traditions that they’re bringing from their countries," said Menzhuber.

One of the Newcomer Experience scholars is Xiomara, a recent immigrant with her family from Ecuador. 

Speaking through an interpreter, she says she’s learning and understanding a lot more English, although she’s confused by words that sound the same but have different spellings and meanings.

"So, in Spanish social studies I’m learning about the Native American people, the Ojibwe and the Dakota," said Xiomara, once again through an interpreter. "I’m learning the history of Minnesota and we just went on a field trip, too."

One of Xiomara’s teachers is Silvia Ochoa. 

"I enjoy serving, serving the kids and connecting with them," said Ochoa.

Ochoa herself comes from an immigrant family who had lived in Guatemala. Ochoa was born in Minnesota and graduated from Benilde-St. Margaret’s High School and the University of Minnesota.

"Me knowing Spanish, being a person of color kind of helps, and certainly led me to serving those kids who look like me. And for them to see someone who looks like them, I think was very important," she said.

Ochoa’s class focuses in part on teaching her Newcomer Experience scholars about living in Minnesota.  This day’s class focused on winter activities and taught in Spanish while sprinkling in phrases of English. 

She then has them write two sentences about an activity they would like to do in the winter with their families and friends.

"I think this will help them be successful in the long run," said Ochoa about the structure of the program. "Having the tools for them to settle in, being the schools, being welcoming toward them, and meeting them where they are at."

Principal Menzhuber said the program is designed to integrate the new immigrants into mainstream classes as much as possible.

"We want them learning at grade level and grappling with that content and using support to help them do that," she said. Those supports often come from technology including keyboards that can translate back and forth and from oral headphones during lectures.

All of it is done by school of teachers firmly rooted in the foundations of their neighborhood, yet looking to embrace its new generation of learners.

"We want to be a safe and amazing place for our families," said Menzhuber. "And we want them to know that they are beloved children of God and they are worth every single thing that we’re doing with them academically."