The school , which opened in 2010, is for students in kindergarten through 12th grade who come to Cleveland from other countries and Puerto Rico and need help learning English or a different culture.
Reflecting a bump in the region’s immigration and refugee traffic, enrollment has jumped from 250 at the start of the school year to 425. The students hail from 20 different countries and speak 13 different languages.
“There’s a growing number of children coming into this area from all over the world,” Principal Natividad Pagan said. “Every day we enroll one or two.”
More than a third of the students are refugees who in many cases have never had formal education. Besides teaching the students English so they can transfer to other CMSD schools, the academy often has to indoctrinate them in American customs and matters as basic as hygiene.
The makeup of the student body, largely Hispanic, is changing. Many now come from countries like Nepal, Burma, Congo, Sudan, Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Newcomers Academy, located on West 46th Street near Clark Avenue, seeks to prepare students to enter the District mainstream within two years, though even then they will need help from a bilingual teacher or aide. The school is not rated by the state because the students are not there long enough.
Pagan hopes to add teachers and reorganize the staff next year so students who need the most help with English can learn in small groups. The school also would like to let high school students -- who might be as old as 19 when they arrive -- stay four years.
“These kids really need more support,” Pagan said. “Some kids will be ready to go, but for others we would offer the option.”
Four brothers, ages 9, 11, 15 and 17, from the small African state of Eritrea recently showed up at the school with their mother. The family is from the Kunama tribe, which makes up 2 percent of Eritrea’s population.
The school could not find anyone in northern Ohio who spoke the family’s language but was able to communicate with the help of a Somali cabdriver based at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport. The boys could neither read nor write, even in their own language. They had never used a toilet and were frightened by the flushing noise.
The brothers were dressed in undersized, donated clothing the day they showed up at the school to register, said Jamal Sulaiman, who works in a Multilingual Welcome Center at Thomas Jefferson. He said the boys clearly were wary of their new surroundings.
“You could see it in their eyes,” said Sulaiman, who speaks Spanish and Arabic. “They didn’t know what was happening to them.”
Samuel Román grew up speaking Spanish in Puerto Rico and mastered French in college. But he also to has to use gestures and visual aids to convey points to his 34 fifth-graders, who include children from Puerto Rico, Nepal, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Uganda and Sudan, as well as one of the boys from Eritrea.
“It takes a lot longer to get through a unit than in a regular class,” said Román, who acknowledges feeling drained at the end of the workday. “Some of them may know the concept already, but they don’t know what it’s called, not even in their own language.”
Román, who has been at the school since its beginning, and other Thomas Jefferson teachers follow the Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol, which combines language development with core subjects. He designs lessons that let students “see what we’re talking about.”
In a recent science lesson devoted to light and its properties, Román kept it simple. He froze a video to show beams of light reflected in straight lines and at angles. He likened the path followed by particles of light to that of a soccer ball or marble. That was about it for the hour class; refracted light would have to wait until another day.
The students sat with pencils in hand, raised their hands and sometimes blurted out answers in their native languages. Román, who directs students to attempt English when called on, said they are capable in subjects like math and science but struggle with reading levels that range from prekindergarten to third grade.
Román said his students show signs of catching on within two to three weeks and then make steady gains after that. But at grading time, his yardstick is progress.
“We are providing intervention for these kids,” he said. “It’s very different from a regular classroom or a bilingual classroom.”
Prabesh, an 11-year-old refugee from Nepal with an affinity for science, arrived in the country last year and has learned English with the aid of an illustrated dictionary -- his idea. Prabesh sounded a lot like a typical American youth in describing the adjustment.
“It's, like, hard,” he said.
Ten-year-old Grecia said school was confusing when she came last year from the Dominican Republic. The little girl, whose expression frequently breaks into a bright smile, said her English-speaking father supplements her learning at home.
“My Dad, he buys me books in English,” said Grecia, who aspires to be an actress. “He talked to me. I had to answer him.”
Social service agencies directly resettle 500 to 600 refugees in the Cleveland area each year. The area also is a popular destination for other refugees who migrate from elsewhere in the United States to be near relatives or take advantage of services.
Many refugees are clustered on Cleveland’s West Side, where one of the agencies, Cleveland Catholic Charities Migration and Refugee Services, has its offices. The agency’s Alissa Ostrove said the Thomas Jefferson Newcomers Academy is “a great way for students to get on their feet when they get here.”
“It really helps,” she said. “We’re noticing a difference with the kids, both how they adjust and learn English.”
Thomas Jefferson International Newcomers Academy has evolved into a strong ally in the cause, said Eileen Wilson, director of refugee resettlement ministries for Building Hope in the City. The independent, urban-centered Lutheran group offers or refers refugees to support such as English classes, tutoring, mentoring and counseling.
“They have more direct conversations with all the people involved,” Wilson said. “They have touch points in the community that they didn’t have before.”
The refugee movement inspired CityMusic Cleveland, a professional chamber orchestra, to perform a program called “Journeys of Hope” for free at four area locations last month. Dancers, poets and artists from the refugee community helped tell stories of their cultures and histories.
A weekday afternoon performance at Thomas Jefferson featured Nepali dancers from the school and Burundi dancers who are enrolled at nearby Lincoln-West High School. Students packed the gymnasium bleachers and joyfully clapped along.
Rebecca Schweigert Mayhew is in charge of community engagement for CityMusic and serves as the ensemble’s principal oboe player. She marveled at the rich diversity that enveloped her.
“I feel like I have traveled around the globe just from being in this building and getting to know the people,” she said. “It’s an amazing school.”