Marie Moreno: TIME Innovative Teachers 2022

Marie Moreno has gotten used to being contacted by educators across the country, who have read her online work.

“They google ‘newcomer,’ they google ‘immigrants,’ and see a lot of the work that I’ve been doing since 2005, with Las Americas, really supporting that type of student,” says Moreno, the longtime principal of Las Americas Newcomer School in Houston, who left that role at the end of May to pursue that work as a consultant.

Moreno taught students who were recently immigrant or refugees from over 40 countries to fourth through eighth grades at the school. They helped them learn English as well as transition into American life during a one-year intensive program.

A RAND Corporation report published in 2021 shows that there is a rise in undocumented asylum-seeking kids from Central America, Mexico, and Central America. Texas and Louisiana are home to 75% of the recent arrivals. “Many schools and school districts across the country are finding that they need to do something different” to accommodate these kids, says Moreno, 49. “They need to look at ways to reach students who are coming with these very large gaps in education.”

Las Americas had 243 students at the close of 2017-18. The school currently has 368 students, who speak more than 30 languages. This includes nearly 90 Afghan children. “I suspect we’ll have some Ukrainians coming in really soon,” Moreno says. “It’s just a matter of time.”

Marie Moreno instructs Houston’s refugee and recent immigrants.

Courtesy Photo

As they adapt to Houston’s culture, these students will be taught in small groups, based on English proficiency. They will also learn core math and science classes. Moreno calls social-emotional learning “the fabric of our school,” employing nine social workers to help students and families and offering resources, like a health clinic and clothing closet to meet their needs beyond the classroom. She hired an Afghan tutor to help with the increasing number of students who are from Afghanistan.

She has also worked closely with students and parents, often meeting with them to discuss how the U.S. school system operates, what students can do for class credit, as well as how parents can be best advocates for their kids. “Newcomer centers need to educate not only our kids, but the families that are supporting them,” she says.

“My mission is to make sure that we put those families on a successful path, so they can be our next doctors, our next engineers, and provide them the opportunity that they want to strive to be,” says Moreno, who worked as a computer programmer before becoming a computer science teacher and then a principal. “If you don’t give them the support, the medicine, the resources that they need, they’re going to start falling off and then they’re your dropouts.”

Moreno has been contacted by leaders in 15 schools districts across New Jersey, South Carolina and Alabama to provide guidance. Emma Merrill was a New Orleans teacher. Following her work with English learners who failed to clear the state exams for graduation, Merrill set out to create Las Sierras Academy.

Moreno shared her resources and gave advice to help start a program for newcomers. Merrill, who launched Las Sierras Academy, housed within a public charter school, in the fall of 2021, recently visited Moreno’s school in person, observing classes and meeting teachers and students in an effort to learn how the school teaches academic content while boosting language proficiency, and how Las Americas helps students transition into mainstream schools after a year.

She now plans to incorporate some of Moreno’s techniques into her own school, including a tool to track students’ literacy growth and a teaching format that prioritizes one-on-one instruction and small-group work over lecture-style classes.

“I came back super inspired,” Merrill says, adding that it was an emotional experience seeing the impact of an established newcomer program. “I started getting really teary eyed and almost crying, because you see a model that works, that you’ve been dreaming for, and that you’ve been wanting your kids to have for years.”

Merrill had originally expected that 20 to 30 students would enroll during the pilot school year. However, 50 students were enrolled in 9th-12th grade. “We have kids every day who are enrolling,” Merrill says, right up until the end of the school year.

Its success is increasing as the program expands. Azka Ahmed began sixth grade at Las Americas ten years ago after moving from Pakistan to the U.S. “When I came to the U.S., everything felt very different, and one of the biggest barriers was language,” says Ahmed, whose first language is Urdu and who spoke very little English at the time. “Las Americas was really one of the best things that happened to me.”

Ahmed now teaches sixth-grade science at Houston’s Jane Long Academy, a school that neighbors Las Americas and where Moreno was, until recently, the principal. Ahmed was inspired by her teachers, who made it a point to get to know her and helped her understand the process.

Moreno is convinced that the Las Americas model works because she has heard from students such as Ahmed. As she departs Las Americas she plans to put her many years of experience into helping other districts to launch similar programs across the nation.

“I am getting more and more calls from people who don’t know what to do,” she says. “The need is greater now.”

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