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Lessons in English: Newcomer Center offers support to growing Hispanic population in Hazleton

Abril De La Cruz works on a worksheet in her kindergarten class at the Hazleton Newcomer Center.
Aimee Dilger
Abril De La Cruz works on a worksheet in her kindergarten class at the Hazleton Newcomer Center.

Samy Lopez stood in front of his kindergarten students at the Hazleton Area School District’s Newcomer Center. He points to a picture of a bag projected on the board. Most of the students didn’t know any English when they started in the classroom. They pronounce each letter together.


“They're learning the material plus the language. So they're doing double the work,” Lopez said.

Lopez’s classroom is inside the Newcomer Center, created this school year inside the Hazle Township Early Learning Center. Enrollment continues to surge in the district that spans Luzerne, Carbon and Schuylkill counties, and most of the new students have limited English proficiency.

Total enrollment has grown from 11,500 to 13,200 students in the last seven years. Enrollment in English language learner classes has grown from 3,000 to 3,600 students in one year.

As many as 10 new students enroll in the district each day, and about 90% of those students speak Spanish, explained Lindsay Wagner, the district’s supervisor of English Language Learners.

“When we first started looking into this program last year, I thought room for about 250 students would be OK, and we had about 400 newcomers come this year,” Wagner said.

Children can stay at the Newcomer Center for up to one year. When the teachers feel like the students are ready for their home schools, they head to those. The seats are never empty for long, Superintendent Brian Uplinger said.

“The students that come into this are better prepared to enter their home schools and go back to their other peers more quickly than in the past,” he said. “It's more of an individualized educational plan to get them ready to move back to their home schools.”

A majority of new students are currently moving to Hazleton from the Dominican Republic, as families seek to be close to relatives already established and find work in the growing warehouse and logistics industry, Uplinger explained.

“We don't mind that. We'll educate them to the best of our ability and the best of their ability,” he said. “We don't care who comes, how many come. We just need the space to educate them appropriately.”

The surge in enrollment has the district looking to build a new school and possibly redraw boundaries or change grades offered for the rest. The school board is expected to vote in June on several options. Those options include building a new kindergarten through eighth-grade school, restructuring schools and transitioning building levels to kindergarten through fifth grade instead of eighth grade or building a school for seventh and eighth grades.

The district’s cyber program also will expand its presence at the Laurel Mall. Taking over a third storefront will allow more teachers to work out of the mall instead of using space in existing buildings and offer more space for meetings with students and families. About 70 students learned through the cyber school before the COVID-19 pandemic. That number is up to 800 now.

"So if we were to close that program, which we're not, and bring those kiddos back into the schools, we would not have anywhere to put them," Uplinger said. "We can't absorb that many students all at one time."

The surge in enrollment hasn’t come without some growing pains. Scranton attorney Daniel Brier and the UCLA Voting Rights Project filed a lawsuit in February on behalf of two Hispanic mothers and district residents, challenging the at-large method of electing school directors. More than 65% of students in the district are Hispanic, but the district has never had a Hispanic school board member. The U.S. Justice Department filed a statement of interest this month supporting the right of private plaintiffs to bring a lawsuit to enforce Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. In response to the lawsuit, the district has highlighted how it has met the challenges of increasing and more diverse enrollment.

Back at the Newcomer Center, Wagner and Uplinger walk down the tiled hallway. Teachers' voices can be heard outside their classrooms. Students repeat words in English.

The administrators explain the benefits they’ve seen in the center’s first year. Teachers in other Hazleton schools report that the Newcomer Center students arrive in classrooms more prepared to learn. Parent engagement and involvement is up, and families enrolled in district-run English classes.

Through a translator, Laura Urena Mendez spoke about what she liked about the Newcomer Center. The 11-year-old moved from Santiago, Dominican Republic, five months ago.

“She's saying she likes the school because she can learn more English,” the translator said.

The Newcomer Center includes students in kindergarten through sixth grades this year. The district is looking at options for seventh and eighth grades for the fall and would like to offer a program for high school students in the future, too.

Lessons are presented in English, and bilingual paraprofessionals translate some information to assure students understand it.

Lopez, one of the kindergarten teachers, speaks Spanish too. He’s bilingual, but tries to limit his Spanish. He moves onto the next word.


“They're learning this plus they're learning the language,” Lopez said. “So some of them might come with a base of knowing them in their home language and some of them not… they don’t want to lose their native language, but then they’ve got to learn this first because they're being assessed in English.”

Sarah Hofius Hall worked at The Times-Tribune in Scranton since 2006. For nearly all of that time, Hall covered education, visiting the region's classrooms and reporting on issues important to students, teachers, families and taxpayers.

You can email Sarah at sarahhall@wvia.org