In Oklahoma, Special Graduation Celebrates Achievements of English-Language Learner Students

High school seniors from the Oklahoma City Public Schools participate in a graduation ceremony for refugees, immigrants, and English language learners. They also plan to participate in the full commencement. Oklahoma City Public Schools

For families who don't speak English at home, high school graduations can be a time of stress and confusion, especially with language and cultural barriers.

“In going to graduations, it just feels like a disconnect at times when you don’t understand what is being said, so then you’re just waiting for your students’ name to be called,” Judith Huerta, a community resource coordinator at Oklahoma City Public Schools (OKCPS), told NBC News. “It’s a waiting period, and it’s even more so when you don’t understand the language.”

To help address these issues, U.S. Grant High School in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, held a commencement tailored for families of English-language learner students in its "newcomer" program last week with the majority of the event conducted in Spanish with Arabic and French translators on hand.

“We have newcomers from a lot of different backgrounds, and it’s great because it’s kind of a wonderful sort of melting pot of individuals who share their experiences from their native countries,” OKCPS Superintendent Aurora Lora told NBC News. “And they come and share their culture with us, and so I think the diversity of our student body in Oklahoma City is overall really beautiful.”

OKCPS categorizes a student as a “newcomer” if they arrive from out of the United States or transfer into the school with limited English proficiency according to a placement test.

According to the district’s 2015 – 2016 statistical profile, about 13,500 of its approximately 45,000 students are English language learners. Arabic, Vietnamese, Hindi, Lao, and Russian are among some of the languages that students speak at home, according to the profile.

The event celebrated English language learners who are seniors and have completed all requirements to graduate while immersed in a new language and culture.

More than 30 students took part at U.S. Grant High School in Oklahoma City. Each student received a book signed by their teachers, and the students planned to take part in the senior-wide commencement as well.

English language learner students at Oklahoma City Public Schools fulfill high school graduation requirements while acclimating to a new language. Oklahoma City Public Schools

“With each student, we kind of look at what their language proficiency is, what their credits they might come in with are, things like that, to tailor an education plan for them,” Sara Marin, an OKCPS English language learner instruction facilitator, told NBC News.

The students can face many challenges, such as arriving as refugees or living on their own without the support of family, Marin added.

Because the students come from other countries, they may not have taken the courses in the same way as they do in the U.S., meaning someone may have taken chemistry and physics but not physical science. This means the senior year for an English language learner student can look very different compared to other students, something school officials are attempting to change, Marin said.

One student, Daniela Unzueta, was named valedictorian after arriving just this year without her family, who remain in Mexico, she said. She took her four required English classes and three required history classes during regular school hours and at night school.

“It’s been a really big challenge,” the 18-year-old told NBC News. “I’m away from my family and basically alone here. I came here with a goal to give the best of me to everyone, and I think I’m doing well.”

Students who participated in Oklahoma City Public School's commencement for English language learner students will also participate in a full graduation ceremony. Oklahoma City Public Schools

Gildardo Ceballos, meanwhile, maintained a 4.0 grade point average while concurrently enrolled in college classes as a high school senior, he said. He plans to study civil engineering like his parents at the university level.

“My teachers pushed me and believed in me, so I ended up taking a fully concurrent class load,” the 19-year-old told NBC News.

“I know what I want, and I need to do whatever it takes to graduate from college,” Ceballos added.

The newcomer students must meet the exact same requirements for graduation as their English-speaking peers, Logan Curtis, an English-language learner teacher, noted.

“They not only have to master all of the material required in high school, but they also have to learn a language at the same time,” she told NBC News. “So the students we’re celebrating today have an even more unique challenge in that they have come to the U.S. just during high school so they have done it for four years or less.”

Huerta, the community resource coordinator, spoke at the event, highlighting the challenges of goal-setting, living in the U.S. without legal status, and loss and grief. She called on the students to let themselves be vulnerable. There is power in stories and experiences, she added.

“I think I speak for all of us when I say that regardless of what you have experienced — how you arrived to this country, any abuse you have endured, the language barriers that you knocked down — we are still here as your teachers, and as the strange lady that keeps being invited to your class, because your stories and personalities have motivated us and made our school days enjoyable,” she said.

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