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Louisville's ESL Newcomer Academy Students Start First Day Of School In New Home

Manirakiza Sarah, 20, a student at the ESL Newcomer Academy
Manirakiza Sarah, 20, a student at the ESL Newcomer Academy

American accents were hard for twenty-year-old Manirakiza Sarah to get used to when she moved to Louisville last year.

“I used to speak the British English because it’s the one that is taught in Uganda,” Sarah said. “My first language is Swahili but I also speak Kinyarwanda because I learned it from my friends.”

Sarah is an 11th grader in the ESL Newcomer Academy. She’s able to be enrolled at the age of 20 because the maximum age for required free education in Kentucky is 21.  She’s eager to get a job after she finishes her time at the Academy to support her family, including her six-month old son.  

The ESL Newcomer Academy helps middle and high school students new to the country learn language skills as well as skills to help them adapt to their new home. And this year there's a single school dedicated to them: the former Phoenix School of Discovery. Prior to this year, the hundreds of Academy students were spread out among four different schools.

Gwen Snow, principal of the ESL Newcomer Academy, says having the school in one location is important.

“We have a mental health counselor that doesn’t need to bounce around to different buildings. Now she can really focus services,” Snow said.

Karina Barillas, executive director of La Casita Center, an organization that focuses on services such as education and advocacy for Louisville’s Latino population.

“I am very emotional about it, I’m very happy, I’m very excited” says Barillas about the first day of school. “As a tradition, this school, I will say, is one — if not the best — in my opinion of Jefferson County because of the love and accompaniment and real interest they have to our newcomer students to the city.”

Students can also access translation services easier now that services are in one building.

“Our bilingual associate instructors were spread out across several campuses; sometimes they were rotating,” Assistant Principal Rebecca Merkel said. “So if you were a student, for example, who needed to have the support of a Kinyarwandan speaker, we only had one. So some students only see that person once a week or in some cases it wasn’t available at all.”

Students at Newcomer Academy spend anywhere from six months to two years in the program before moving on to a "mainstream" school within JCPS or graduating. Approximately 300 students started their first day of school at the Newcomer Academy Wednesday.  The population of the academy can grow up to approximately 700 students by the end of this school year.

Roxanne Scott covers education for WFPL News.