In Modesto City Schools, Two Teach Plus Teacher Leaders Advocate for Refugee and Immigrant Students

California Policy Fellowship alumna Lindsey Bird and Policy Fellow Dr. Amelia Herrera have worked with immigrant, refugee, and asylum-seeking students in Modesto, California since 2009. Lindsey and Amelia are the founding teachers of the Language Institute at Davis High School in Modesto and have advocated passionately on behalf of their students.

What’s the Plus caught up with Amelia and Lindsey after they and their students traveled to Sacramento to meet with Assemblymember Anna Caballero to discuss a bill to provide opportunities for English learners and newcomer students. The bill passed out of the Senate Education Committee after their testimony and will next be heard in the Senate Appropriations committee.

Congratulations on having the AB 2121 amended to include newcomer students!

Lindsey: Thank you! The bill would guarantee that newcomers who enter California public schools during 10th grade or higher have access to a 5th year of high school. This extra time can be used to meet local graduation requirements or to provide the time needed to graduate university-eligible.

Tell us about the Language Institute.

Amelia: The Language Institute is a specialized high school program for newcomer immigrant and refugee students in Modesto City Schools. The students are consolidated on our campus for intensive language acquisition and learning acceleration. Over the years, we’ve represented students from 41 countries and 18 primary languages. Today, our campus has an enrollment of 1800 and approximately 300 of those students are identified as Language Institute.

Lindsey Bird (left) and Amelia Herrera (right) with a Language Institute student.

What’s the age range of the students and what has generally been their educational experience?

Lindsey: Students range in age between 13 and 18 and enroll at any time during the school year. Some arrive with formal education and some with none at all. One of the things we did not anticipate when we designed the program was that our region would become the third largest refugee resettlement hub in the state. Among the refugee student population there are significant gaps in formal education; we did not expect, for example, that we would have to start by teaching the Roman alphabet.

What motivated you to start this program?

Lindsey: Before getting involved with the Language Institute, I taught the English language learner (ELL) section of social science in my district. That classroom was a catch-all for any student with an ELL label. In my U.S. history class, I would have a student who arrived yesterday and didn’t know any English alongside a student who was born in the United States but didn’t use English as their primary language and didn’t even know that they were an English learner. I felt that the students and I were set up to fail and it made me very passionate to create a system that would meet the needs of the varying levels of the English learners within our high school.

What is the Institute’s curriculum?

Amelia: Our key curriculum is focused on English acquisition. Within that, we need to accommodate every student, from those who’ve never been to school and don’t know the alphabet to those who might know a few English words but have had a solid education and just need acceleration.

What are the greatest barriers for the students you teach?

Lindsay: Many of our students have not been able to get the benefits of the Language Institute because of The Modesto City Schools Board of Education policies. Modesto enrolls students by age and not by academic experience. This means that if a 17-year-old student has fled their home country and has had limited or no schooling there, they would still be enrolled as a high school senior and only get one year or less of our program. Despite the fact that the state and federal laws allow a student to stay in the K-12 system until they are 21, these students are being forced out by the time they were 18.

Amelia: In 2009, my first year with the Institute, we had a student from Angola. She wasn’t literate in her primary language or in English. Seeing her struggle was our first ‘aha’ moment. We realized then that some students’ life circumstances were such that they were going to need extra time in become competent in English and to graduate.

What has been the focus of your advocacy on behalf of your students?

Lindsey: We have organized local advocates to challenge these policies at the school district level, bringing public pressure on the Board not to limit access for our students. The Board has proposed a modest policy change, allowing students to register as 10th graders and consider allowing them to stay until they are 20 on a case-by-case basis.

Lindsey Bird (center), Amelia Herrera (fourth from right), and their students meet with Assemblymember Anna Caballero to discuss a bill to provide opportunities for English learners and newcomer students.

How has Teach Plus helped you in your advocacy?

Lindsey: With help from Teach Plus, we reached out to legislative staff in the State Capitol to see if there were any potential state remedies. We met with staffers, one of whom visited the Institute, and connected with Assemblymember Caballero. She agreed to add “newly arrived immigrant students” to her bill.

Amelia: I credit Teach Plus a lot with helping us to understand policy and in giving us the opportunity to have conversations with policymakers. Learning how to tell our story in a way that not only gets the lawmakers to recognize the policy implications but also pulls on their heart strings was really important. Teach Plus has empowered us to claim a seat at the table and to advocate for the resources we need.

How do you make sure your students’ voices are being heard?

Lindsey: We work hard to give them the confidence that it’s okay to tell their story and to fight for their education in this country. We want our students to be proud of who they are, and know that they can share their life experiences with others.

What advice do you have for teachers who want to advocate for their students?

Lindsey: See it through. Don’t get lost in those micro moments of frustration. The longer you can hold on to that advocacy spirit, the more you’ll be able to appreciate the difference you’re making for the students you’re passionate about.

Amelia: Enjoy the students. Knowing that my students are going to make me laugh or that I’m going to make them laugh every day has been so important for me. And value the ability to learn from them, which in my case means about their culture and their country.