When a school opens its arms to immigrants

This school, whose students are over 80% immigrants, uses relationships and empathy as their strength. Here’s how they do it.

By Team XQ

Newcomers and their families find a home at Brooklyn Lab.

Every Saturday morning, the bursar from Brooklyn Laboratory High School calls five of the school’s immigrant families just to say hello, see how they’re doing, ask if they need anything. It’s a small thing, she said, but well worth the time.

“I don’t have to do it, but I make it a priority because I know what it’s like to be in a new country,” said Cecile Kidd, who immigrated to New York from Jamaica 20 years ago. “It’s important to reach out, make them feel they’re not alone. So they feel that connectedness.”

Immigrants are the Soul of Our School

Immigrant student populations are increasing dramatically across the country, according to a study by the Migration Policy Institute. Nationwide, immigrant students make up about 26 percent of the overall student population, up from 13 percent in 1990. But at Brooklyn Lab, an XQ School, 80 percent of the students are from other countries. They come from the Dominican Republic, Nigeria, Guatemala, Haiti, Barbados, Mexico, Kenya, Guyana, and points beyond. Many of the teachers and staff are also immigrants, helping create a welcoming, compassionate community for newcomers and their families.

“Immigrants are the soul of our school,” said school director BB Ntsakey, who’s originally from Ghana. “When we think of a global education, it’s so important to have kids from all over. It helps build empathy, understanding, a way of seeing the world.”

Developing Personal, Trusting Relationships

Brooklyn Lab offers opportunities every day for newcomer students and their families to meet, socialize, and feel part of the school community. The school hosts regular potlucks and movie nights for families, and students can get to know each other through sports teams, clubs, after-school activities.

But perhaps more important, teachers and staff develop personal, trusting relationships with each student, regardless of where they’re from. Those relationships help students feel noticed, heard, and part of the school community.

Those efforts have paid off. One parent, a 2015 immigrant, said her daughter had suffered academically and felt excluded at her previous school because of her accent. She was afraid to ask questions in class or talk to her peers because she was afraid other students would make fun of her.

But that changed after she started at Brooklyn Lab.

“In her history class she started going to her teacher after class to get help, and then the teacher started looking for ways for her to get more involved in class and speak up,” the mother said. “That relationship helped build her confidence. … Now her grades have picked up, her confidence is going up, and she has started speaking in class. They have diverse teachers and they teach a lot of inclusion so she feels welcome and not ashamed of her accent.”

Different Perspectives, Different Strengths

Eric Tucker, Brooklyn Lab’s executive director, said immigrant students bring academic benefits, as well. Students from other countries may have learned math differently, for example, and can share their expertise and perspectives in class. They might have a different way of reaching the same solution, which can be invaluable during a classroom lesson.

“It’s a huge asset in terms of supporting teachers and students,” he said. “It helps everyone feel more engaged.”

Cecile Kidd has vivid memories of moving to the U.S. from Jamaica. For starters, she felt freer, which was a blessing but also stressful and sometimes frightening. Everything else was different, too: the climate, the apartments, the language, the culture, the lifestyle. All of it could be overwhelming, and she was often homesick.

“I Know What They’re Going Through”

So when newcomer families arrive at Brooklyn Lab, she takes special care to greet them, help out, and make them feel comfortable. She also emphasizes the importance of education for their children and how it can be a springboard to a better life. She encourages parents to meet the teachers, get involved with the school, and make sure their kids do their homework and prepare for college. She even suggests they use flashcards, which can help them learn the language and remember important things.

“I know what they’re going through. I try to tell them the importance of education. Of discipline. Of academics,” she said. “I tell them, yes, it’s hard, but I am here for you. There’s a light at the end of the tunnel. I did it. I have lived it. You can do it, too.”

She reaches out to every family, but she doesn’t worry about them too much.

“They pick it up quickly,” she said. “And they help me, too. They remind me we’re all here together, we’re all one community. … We learn a lot from each other.”