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Marie Moreno Is Educating Immigrant and Refugee Kids—and Their Parents

6 minute read

Marie Moreno is used to hearing from educators around the country who read about her work online.

“They google ‘newcomer,’ they google ‘immigrants,’ and see a lot of the work that I’ve been doing since 2005, with Las Americas, really supporting that type of student,” says Moreno, the longtime principal of Las Americas Newcomer School in Houston, who left that role at the end of May to pursue that work as a consultant.

At the specialized public school, Moreno educated recent immigrant and refugee students from more than 40 countries in fourth through eighth grade, helping them learn English and transition to life in the U.S. during an intensive one-year program.

Data show that a growing number of undocumented and asylum-seeking children have arrived in the U.S. from Central America and Mexico in recent years, in part due to high levels of gang violence and poverty, according to a RAND Corporation study published in 2021. Ten states, including Texas and Louisiana, host 75% of those recent arrivals. “Many schools and school districts across the country are finding that they need to do something different” to accommodate these kids, says Moreno, 49. “They need to look at ways to reach students who are coming with these very large gaps in education.”

At the end of the 2017-18 school year, Las Americas enrolled 243 students. Today, the school enrolls 368 students who collectively speak over 30 languages, including nearly 90 children who arrived from Afghanistan this school year. “I suspect we’ll have some Ukrainians coming in really soon,” Moreno says. “It’s just a matter of time.”

Marie Moreno educates recent immigrant and refugee students in Houston.Courtesy Photo

While they adjust to life in Houston, those students will learn in small groups based on their level of English proficiency, working on language skills while also taking core math and science classes. Moreno calls social-emotional learning “the fabric of our school,” employing nine social workers to help students and families and offering resources, like a health clinic and clothing closet to meet their needs beyond the classroom. This year, she hired a tutor who speaks Pashto to better serve the influx of students from Afghanistan.

And she has often worked with parents as much as students, meeting with them to explain how the U.S. public school system works, how students can earn class credit, and how parents can best advocate for their children. “Newcomer centers need to educate not only our kids, but the families that are supporting them,” she says.

“My mission is to make sure that we put those families on a successful path, so they can be our next doctors, our next engineers, and provide them the opportunity that they want to strive to be,” says Moreno, who worked as a computer programmer before becoming a computer science teacher and then a principal. “If you don’t give them the support, the medicine, the resources that they need, they’re going to start falling off and then they’re your dropouts.”

Leaders in about 15 school districts, from New Jersey to South Carolina to Alabama, have reached out to Moreno for guidance this school year alone, seeking tips on how to best serve immigrant students in their communities. In 2019, Emma Merrill, a teacher in New Orleans, was one of them. She set out to start Las Sierras Academy for newcomers after working with English language learners who struggled to pass the state exams required for high school graduation.

She reached out to Moreno, who shared resources and advice for starting a newcomer program. Merrill, who launched Las Sierras Academy, housed within a public charter school, in the fall of 2021, recently visited Moreno’s school in person, observing classes and meeting teachers and students in an effort to learn how the school teaches academic content while boosting language proficiency, and how Las Americas helps students transition into mainstream schools after a year.

She now plans to incorporate some of Moreno’s techniques into her own school, including a tool to track students’ literacy growth and a teaching format that prioritizes one-on-one instruction and small-group work over lecture-style classes.

“I came back super inspired,” Merrill says, adding that it was an emotional experience seeing the impact of an established newcomer program. “I started getting really teary eyed and almost crying, because you see a model that works, that you’ve been dreaming for, and that you’ve been wanting your kids to have for years.”

Merrill originally expected to have 20 to 30 students enroll during this pilot school year, but she wound up enrolling 50 students in ninth through 12th grades. “We have kids every day who are enrolling,” Merrill says, right up until the end of the school year.

As the program spreads, its success is becoming apparent. Ten years ago, Azka Ahmed started sixth grade at Las Americas, shortly after moving to the U.S. from Pakistan. “When I came to the U.S., everything felt very different, and one of the biggest barriers was language,” says Ahmed, whose first language is Urdu and who spoke very little English at the time. “Las Americas was really one of the best things that happened to me.”

Ahmed now teaches sixth-grade science at Houston’s Jane Long Academy, a school that neighbors Las Americas and where Moreno was, until recently, the principal. Inspired by the teachers who worked with her one-on-one and made an effort to understand her experience, Ahmed reached out to Moreno as soon as she graduated with her teaching degree and asked if she had any open teaching positions.

When she hears from former students like Ahmed, Moreno knows the Las Americas model is working. And as she leaves Las Americas, she is planning to focus her attention on helping other school districts launch similar programs around the country, putting her years of experience to use.

“I am getting more and more calls from people who don’t know what to do,” she says. “The need is greater now.”

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Write to Katie Reilly at Katie.Reilly@time.com