Inside Our Schools
Moving to a new high school is difficult enough, but moving to a new high school in a new country where you don’t know anyone and don’t speak the language can be daunting. That’s where VISA and IDEAS clubs at Alhambra High School (AHS) step in.
By Cheryl Cabot
Fifteen years ago, Javier Gutierriz and Karen Jacobsen, teachers at AHS, started the VISA “Voice of International Students of Alhambra” club. An immigrant leadership and community service club that focuses on immigrant advocacy. It’s one of the larger clubs on campus. There are consistently 75-100 students involved in VISA because, as Gutierriz said, “It’s really the only club immigrant students feel comfortable joining.”
Much newer at five years old, IDEAS, “Improving Dreams, Equality, Access and Success,” was built upon the original IDEAS organization at UCLA. Travis Corona, a teacher at AHS, serves as the advisor for the club. The impetus is to give undocumented kids (some that have lived here all their lives and others newly arrived) a safe place to talk and discuss immigration issues that concern them. Students are never asked their status or that of their families and friends, but they are welcome to share if they wish to.
The Share Center
Although the two clubs hold meetings separately, they coalesce around the Share Center (opened just last year with an adjacent space to be added soon). At the Share Center, kids congregate during lunch hour and after school to relax, talk and make new friends, and work on various projects or school work. Computers are provided as well as tutoring.
Miguel Zermeno, from Mexico, was president of IDEAS club this past year. “I see [the Share Center] as an opportunity to meet, reach people and teach them about their rights. Socially, we teach immigrant students who are new here and have a hard time adapting. One of our main goals is to help them adapt here.”
“I started coming to IDEAS because I felt like we had some similarities because we all came from different countries, and we feel safe,” Sabanam Neupan from Nepal said. “Miguel introduced me to IDEAS club, and at that time I didn’t have any friends, so at IDEAS I had more friends for support.”
Carolina Esmerio, also from Mexico, and a member of VISA said, “Last year was my first year…once the Share Center opened, it helped me to get to know more people.”
Mr. Corona is especially excited about the coming involvement of Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAAJ) with IDEAS and the Share Center:
That is a recurring theme throughout the two clubs and the Share Center: meeting new friends, getting support and feeling safe.
Mr. Gutierriz said:
…We opened the room and like that, 40-50 students were here every single day. It was word of mouth. There was no notification…it points to the lack of safe spaces for them where they could hang out with their friends, a secure place they could make their own.
Students have put up posters of graduation and prom photos, as well as various activities they have been involved with, making the Share Center their own. As Guitierriz pointed out, “What makes the Share Center so special is that it’s not one of their classrooms.”
Yuliia Kladova, from Ukraine and a recent graduate of AHS, was working on a large painting of a butterfly, the symbol for the Share Center. She said, “I moved here two years ago. Last year I started hanging out in Mr. G’s classroom a lot because all my friends were there.”
“The reason I come here is [to] lounge, ” Wuzhi Lou from China said. “All people we know come here. Similar people have a place to come together.”
Ms. Jacobsen, an ESL teacher who works exclusively with immigrant students, stressed that “…the Share Center is cross-cultural and not specific to one culture or another.”
The Academy of Future Educators
The goals for the coming school year are building leadership and the academic side with a focus on tutoring. An additional program that will help with this is the Academy of Future Educators (AFE) club. Ms. Jacobsen, an advisor of AFE, explained:
Students who are strong academically, particularly bilingual students, get 25-35 hours of intensive training in tutoring and then get assigned to various classrooms during the school day or tutor after school. So some of them would regularly be assigned to the Share Center here.
“One of the recent graduates speaks Spanish, Cantonese, Mandarin and English,” Jacobsen continued. “She has been trained (in the AFE class) so she can help almost every student.”
So how do new students find out about VISA, IDEAS and the Share Center?
“I think we are pretty effective at reaching the newcomers,” Jacobsen said. “When I get a new student at the beginning of the day, I make sure I have at least a half-dozen students going to lunch with the new student. They should never be alone for that first day.
Recently “Counselor Tuesday” has been instigated for additional help with counselors who speak Spanish and Mandarin as well as English. They have also been able to bring in college counselors to explain a path to college for the students.
Will it spread?
Teachers and advisors, Mr. Gutierriz, Mr. Corona and Ms. Jacobsen would like to see clubs such as IDEAS and VISA spread to other schools, as one of the goals of VISA and IDEAS is interaction with the community and help build more immigrant organizations within schools.
Currently, Alhambra High School is the only school in the San Gabriel Valley to host such clubs.
Cheryl Cabot lives in San Gabriel. She’s a retired school teacher, a free-lance writer, political activist, avid reader, cat lover and lawn bowler. She has recently been appointed as a Commissioner for the City of San Gabriel Community Services Commission. Ms. Cabot has two grown children and three granddaughters.
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