This September, Teachers College began a collaboration with a DOE middle school to support English learning for newcomer students. From September to November, this school enrolled over fifty new students whose families are seeking asylum in the United States. Many of the families are arriving from Venezuela, with other students coming from Colombia, Peru, and Ecuador among other countries.
This school has received many more newcomer students this year than in the past as the number of people seeking refuge at the US-Mexico border has increased greatly in 2022. As Venezuela continues to experience economic and political turmoil, tens of thousands of Venezuelan families have left the country and traveled through difficult conditions in Colombia, Central America, and Mexico to reach the US border. The US border has registered 188,000 Venezuelan people this year (CBP, 2022), but the majority of the 7 million Venezuelan people seeking refuge outside their country remain in Latin America (UNHCR, 2022). Of the new students at this school, many of the families arrived at the border in Texas and were sent on buses to New York City under policies of Texas governor, Greg Abbott.
Through the support of a Zankel Fellowship, Professor Garnett Russell and Victoria Jones, a PhD student in the International and Comparative Education program, have worked with the school to create an English tutoring after school program to support newcomer students. The tutors are students and professors from the Columbia community, represented by various parts of the university: Teachers College, Columbia Law School, Columbia School of Social Work, Columbia College, and Barnard. Three days a week, tutors and students meet to practice new vocabulary, review present tense verbs, and provide a space to hear about the students’ experience in a new school and a new country. The majority of the tutor base is bilingual Spanish-English speakers to help students feel comfortable and communicate fully with their tutors. In the coming semester, the program hopes to incorporate curricula on civic engagement and human rights.
One coordinator of the tutoring program, Jane Winthrop, a TC MA student, shared her thoughts about working with the students each week. “I like how the students support each other emotionally and in their language learning journey. There is a strong sense of solidarity and willingness to help.” She added, “The more that students open up to us, the more certain I feel that these extracurricular opportunities to ask for extra help and play with the language are useful.”
“The remarkable thing about the tutoring program is that every volunteer cares so much about the students we teach. Every week the curriculum team talks about what we could be doing better,” said Yuvia Leon, Columbia College ‘23, a coordinator of the program. “Inside the classroom, volunteers muster up all of their energy… to bring positivity, warmth, and a fun energy into the classroom.”
As the end of the semester comes to a close, it has been a rewarding experience to see the students increase their confidence in their English communication and feel more comfortable in their school surroundings. The middle school has expressed great appreciation for the volunteers from Teachers College and the greater Columbia community, and Professor Garnett Russell and Victoria Jones look forward to a sustained partnership between the school and TC.
UNHCR. (2022). Venezuela Situation. Available at: https://www.unhcr.org/venez
US Customs and Border Protection (CBP). (2022). Nationwide Encounters. Available at:
Interested to learn more about their work and how you might get involved in the program? Reach out to Victoria Jones at firstname.lastname@example.org.