Moving to a new country can be challenging for students who don’t speak their new home’s native language.
The Mercer County Technical School District hopes to help these kids chart a path to success with the Newcomer Academy, a countywide program that is the first of its kind in New Jersey.
Launched in September, the program at the Arthur R. Sypek Center in Pennington offers workforce-ready training and career technical education for high school students new to the United States.
It is designed for English language learners and students with limited or interrupted formal education, aiming to help them adopt English as a second language.
Dr. James Fazzone is the interim superintendent for the Newcomer Academy. He was principal of MCTS for two years before taking on his current position.
He said that there had been a discussion about a newcomer’s academy even before then. The idea was spearheaded by Executive County Superintendent Yasmin E. Hernández and superintendents across the county—the school’s full name is the Hernández Newcomer SLIFE Academy.
“[Students from other countries] want to have the educational offerings that everyone has. But some hurdles they go through could be either through language, or culture, or that they were never really involved in formal education before,” Fazzone said.
Through faculty coordination, the Sypek Center became the host for the program. MCTS involves attendees with their pre-existing technical experiences like culinary arts or science.
Originally, there were plans for a new, sprawling facility, but both funding and getting it ready in time did not seem like the perfect fit, Fazzone said.
They came up with the idea to host it through the MCTS district under the academy approach, a decision made over a series of monthly meetings.
MCTS worked with all of the Mercer County districts in search of prospective students, starting with 13, a “comprehensive yet humble” approach, Fazzone said. For the freshman year currently in progress, they are looking to accept 15 pupils in total, coming from areas like Trenton, Hamilton, and Hopewell.
“We’re extremely successful so far, so we have to make sure we have enough seats for everybody, too,” Fazzone said, saying that he thinks that the Newcomer Academy will only get better as time passes.
For the process, guidance counselors and bilingual supervisors from sending school districts recommend students for the program via an online application.
According to Fazzone, they then receive a sampling of the career technical programs, with a high concentration on culinary and horticulture. The former will focus on microbiology in the kitchen, while the latter is about environmental science through gardening and turf management programs.
Additionally, MCTS is including STEM courses, such as a computer-assisted drawing class, in their roster. Once they explore their options, students can choose a concentration in one of the programs for a future career pathway.
On Sept. 28, a ribbon cutting ceremony was the start of welcoming the students into their new academic environment. Back in 2019, Hernández was approached to be involved because of her previous experience in starting a similar program at Newark public schools.
In her speech from that day, Hernández talked about the historical occasion, expanding on her 31 years of being an educator with a career-long mission to advocate for bilingual students. The matter was personal, especially given her personal background as the child of Cuban immigrants.
“Our work as educators never ends. We are constantly striving to raise the bar to provide excellence and equity for all students,” she maintained.
During an October interview, Hernández continued to build on that sentiment.
“This is groundbreaking for bilingual and vocational school education, [and] the first time that they’re merging to create such an academy. These students with SLIFE, who otherwise wouldn’t be able to be fully educated and address their needs, would end up probably dropping out of school, so it is also a dropout prevention academy.”
“We have less than 1% of ELL represented across the state of New Jersey in our vocational schools,” Hernández said. “That’s why this is also very important.”
Another option available for those entering the school is a five year program to let students spread their wings. While formative assessments and customized learning arrangements help monitor the achievement levels of each individual, the key is to give them time for adjustment.
“We’re differentiating instruction based on their needs,” Fazzone explained of the ongoing process. “We want to help them in every way that we can, whether that’s language, instruction...making sure they have a skill, and any cultural things as well.”
This current group will be sophomores next year while the incoming freshmen start from the beginning, with the eventual seniors able to stay past the typical high school terms if deemed necessary for their development.
Scott Engle is the chef instructor at MCTS and has been working there for 23 years. There are currently seven classes actively running, covering cooking and preparation basics like knife skills. For the students from the Newcomer Academy and other freshmen, they will be getting their ServSafe® food handling certifications, which helps train them in maintaining standards and safety in the kitchen.
“We wanted to integrate them into the school, and get them an opportunity to look around and see what types of opportunities were here,” Engle said, his class a means of conveying to them “how that pathogenic growth works” when it applies to the culinary world.
He explained the importance of learning biology, as well as sanitizing and cleaning procedures. “We show them some things, then make a few products, maybe give them an idea of how fast something that isn’t good for you can spread through your food if you’re not cautious, but the result is something good.”
And often, tasty—the class made yogurt and Engle intended on showing them how to make yeast-raised donuts the following day. His desire is for those who choose that track to attend college or triumphantly embark on their careers, as MCTS has connections to restaurants, industries, and business partners.
Engle stated that at the completion of their schooling, students are fully prepared for acclimating to the workplace, although if they do choose to continue with higher education, their success rates excel past county averages for even just the regular culinary program. This is expected to be replicated in the Newcomer Academy, showing the importance of what makes an employee, as well as chef, worth hiring.
“I would hope that along with the biology skills, [and] a little bit of culinary education that they’re exposed to, that they would develop those skills that make them valuable in the workplace,” Engle said. “You come in our course, you have value as a person, but as an employee, you’re kind of starting from scratch, so the idea is to build value in them so that when they go work, that the people that are in charge, the owners, or the chefs or whatever can see, that these students are gonna generate income, they’re gonna generate money coming in, and they’re gonna be consistent, they’re gonna be there, they’re gonna be professional, and they’re looking to be taught, and that’s really what we hope for.”
In senior year, students can go to Mercer County College, with some able to get half or more of their associates degree completed by the time they graduate from high school. They earn credit through an extensive curriculum that starts with fundamental MCTS courses.
The horticulture and turf management program provides hands-on experience riding equipment, pruning trees, and making floral arrangements in participation with FFA, the Future Farmers of America organization.
“While this is a new program and we’re using all the modern technologies, career offerings, teaching and learning tactics, newcomer’s academies, I think, have been around since our founding fathers,” Fazzone said. He explained that when his parents came through Ellis Island from their Irish and Sicilian backgrounds, the same principles applied.
“There are language barriers that we all have and have had, at least if not us, our ancestors have,” he continued. “We’re just making a version of that for students who are coming to this country now, and we want to offer them everything we possibly can so that they can achieve their highest levels of learning and achievement.”
Of the takeaways for the students, Fazzone kept it simple.
“We want them to have a job, have a skill, earn money and be good citizens.”