When Salesforce.org donated a $1 million grant for newcomer student programs at OUSD, Sara Green was still a student of public policy and social work at UC Berkeley. Drawn by her family connection to the immigrant and refugee experience, she knew the population she eventually wanted to work with but had no idea that her graduate school research would lead her to be hired as the social worker for the Rudsdale Continuation School program for newcomers which began this year.
Hardly anyone would know from her name and appearance, but Sara is a first generation immigrant. Born in Brooklyn, New York, she shared, “my Dad was a refugee from Poland after the war, and my mom came fleeing policies of communism. They couldn’t stay there.” Having grown up in the U.S., her experience “has been completely different, but just seeing how difficult it was for my parents to navigate a new country and language and how much I had to take on makes this work very personal for me. It wasn’t like they understood the college application process or what kind of jobs were out there – we had a limited understanding of the opportunities.”
Sara aims to change that for the newcomer students at Rudsdale, many of whom are unaccompanied minors from Central America who arrived without any family at age 16 -18. As the primary social worker for the program, she connects the students to critical social services such healthcare, court dates for their immigration cases and also assists them with securing employment in order to support themselves. “I’m always thinking about resources and talking to people and connecting them” she said, “that feels like my strength.” It helps that the entire staff prioritizes student mental health and wellbeing, so she says, “I’m the only official social worker but it really feels like there’s more of us.”
The Rudsdale newcomer program is an alternative model that offers a flexible schedule and specialized supports, making it possible for students to work towards a high school degree while supporting themselves financially. “Work is such an intense conflict with school for these students,” Sara explained, “at the end of the day that’s what they have to prioritize because they have to eat and pay their rent.”
One of her favorite parts of this first year has been seeing the excitement and engagement students show when exposed to new possibilities. She sees that “a lot of these kids have no idea what they can do in this area. Whenever we bring in speakers, people that work in different fields, it opens their minds to jobs they may have never heard of.” Because many newcomers have because been in transition for much of their adolescence or come from rural places, “There’s a lot of cultural shifts for them to come to a big city. I think community involvement and exposing them to opportunities right here is really important.”
Thanks to the Salesforce grant, Sara is one of a team of social workers providing social and academic supports for the growing newcomer student population in OUSD schools. These staff members work together work together to improve attendance and retention rates of newcomers in OUSD secondary schools as well as establish and strengthen systems to support them. For more information on newcomers students and programs, visit: www.ousd.org/ellma/newcomer