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Same story, different storytellers: Guilford opens Sylvia Mendez Newcomers School

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Last week, a school district opened a school — which isn’t unusual in and of itself.

But the school that opened in High Point is not like any other school in North Carolina.

It is the first school to be named after a Latina leader in our state.

“We must continue to celebrate the blessings and the benefits of our amazing diversity in this state,” said Gov. Roy Cooper. “Our diversity makes us stronger.”

Students introduced themselves in their primary language. For Sylvia Mendez and these students, this is about belonging. Mebane Rash/EducationNC

Hear the students:

“Welcome to our school. It’s a beautiful school.”

I am not sure anybody there made it through the ribbon cutting ceremony without shedding tears.

The joy of the celebration was held in tension with just how hard the journey has been and continues to be for too many of our students — the journey to our country and the journey once in our country.

Dr. Whitney Oakley, the superintendent of Guilford County Schools (GCS), held up Sylvia Mendez as a “role model and an icon of the civil rights era.”

“Her family’s fight to end segregation in California paved the way for the Brown v. Board of Education case that ended segregation nationwide,” Oakley said.

“Her story is a reflection of the values we hold as a community,” where the heroes who moved our country forward making schools more accessible, equitable, and inclusive in the face of adversity are celebrated, she said.

A book about Mendez and the leadership of her family is entitled, “Separate is never equal.”

Perhaps more than any other, this story highlights the diversity of our students, the diversity in our public school experiences, and the diversity of storytellers who share their story, including Guilford County Schools, LatinxEd, WFMY, and the governor’s office.

I’ve also included my own favorite moments from a day that reminded us all why public schools matter.

Gabrielle Brown | History is made in High Point

Gabrielle Brown handles media relations for Guilford County Schools. She strives to develop “compelling and enterprising content to connect with a diverse audience across multi-platforms.” This is the story she wrote about the school opening.

I started crying.” That is how civil rights pioneer Sylvia Mendez described the moment history was made in High Point, North Carolina.

On Wednesday, Mendez joined Governor Roy Cooper, city, county, school and state leaders to celebrate the opening of the school that bears her name. The Sylvia Mendez Newcomers School is now the first school named after a Latina person in North Carolina.

In 1943, Mendez and her family moved to California. When her parents tried to enroll her and her siblings in school, the system denied them and told them to enroll at a school specifically for Mexican Americans. Her parents filed a federal lawsuit, Mendez v. Westminster, and at age eight, Mendez became the center of the case that paved the way for the landmark U.S. Supreme Court Brown v. Board of Education decision.

The Sylvia Mendez Newcomers School honors Mendez’s work to give all children a high-quality education. “It’s vitally important that our students can see themselves in the role models we hold up for them, and Sylvia Mendez is certainly a leader our students can look up to,” Superintendent Dr. Whitney Oakley said.

As a counterpart to the innovative Doris Henderson Newcomers School in Greensboro, this High Point facility will serve immigrants and refugee students in grades three through 11, who are new to the United States. Students will study at the school for one year before transitioning to a traditional or choice school.

As Mendez crossed the halls of the school that bears her name, she walked into classrooms filled with books detailing her life’s story. During the ceremony, she recalled part of that story, not understanding as a child the magnitude of what her parents and community were fighting for.

“I thought I was just going to a school that had a playground…my parents told me no, they were fighting because I had the right to the same education as everyone else.” Mendez went on to explain that she didn’t entirely understand the concept of a “Newcomers School” until she walked into the facility and met the students from 20 different countries who would soon learn in the classrooms that she stood in.

Guilford County serves as a blueprint for the state and the nation. The district’s stand-alone newcomer school model is as unique as the stories of the students and staff who fill its classrooms. Doris Henderson Newcomers School receives guests from state and local governments as well as educators from across the country who are exploring how best to support immigrant and refugee students in their communities.

Immigrants make up a significant share of North Carolina’s labor force. North Carolina also has the seventh-highest population of resettled refugees. “Schools like the new Sylvia Mendez Newcomers are both the right thing and the smart thing to do,” said Governor Cooper. “It’s the right thing because all children deserve a good education and it’s the smart thing because our international population in North Carolina makes an annual positive impact on our economy of more than $3.5 billion and education will help that grow.” As neighbors, business owners, taxpayers and workers, immigrants are an integral part of North Carolina’s diverse and thriving communities and they make extensive contributions that benefit all.

Guilford County, in particular, is home to the state’s largest and most diverse refugee population. People from a variety of countries and ethnic backgrounds, with substantial numbers of people from Mexico, Guatemala, Venezuela, Somalia, Myanmar, Sudan, Ethiopia, Vietnam, Cuba, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Iraq, Pakistan, Syria, Columbia, Ukraine, El Salvador, Afghanistan and many others call Guilford County home.

Students from Sylvia Mendez held flags from their home countries during a performance that moved Mendez to tears. Mendez, the Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient, called Wednesday’s ceremony more spectacular than her celebration at the White House. As she crossed the halls, she learned about the stories of the people who would be educating future students. Many of them share the same background as her and are working to take advantage of the resources available to them in the land of opportunity.

Principal Christian Walter says he knows firsthand how difficult the transition can be moving to the United States. He came to the country 23 years ago to start a new life and says he’ll use his journey to encourage students and help them chart their own paths.

Community partnerships in High Point will ensure the continued success of the stand-alone school model. Additionally, partnerships with UNC Greensboro’s Psychology Clinic will facilitate therapy options for students who may need extra mental health supports. They will also offer transition workshops to ease students’ fears about leaving Newcomers to attend schools in their attendance zones.

Watch the ceremony below!

Carol Bono | Distilling the essence of a historic moment

Carol Bono is the communications manager and lead storyteller for LatinxEd.

Carol Bono capturing stories at the school opening. Mebane Rash/EducationNC

She posted this short film of the event on Twitter, now X, where she said, “How do you distill the essence of a historic moment into 90 seconds? This was my best attempt at it. Honored to be a witness.”

Giselle Thomas | Working with students to get the story

Giselle Thomas is a broadcast reporter with WFMY. I was impressed with how important it was to Thomas to talk to students, how she worked to connect with them, helped them understand the reporting process, and brought their voices into her story.

Thomas connected her student-centered story to this quote from Mendez:

“I was 8 years old when I was turned away, 9 years old when I was in court, 10 years old when I finally went into an integrated school and I realized that not everyone is prejudiced.”

— Sylvia Mendez

Thomas’s story also highlights the community kitchen and laundry the school makes available to students.

Governor’s Press Office | “The right and the smart thing to do”

If you haven’t noticed, Governor Cooper has been on the road, talking education from cradle to career. His press office has been leading with social media in real time and then following up on the same day with a press release that tethers the visit to the public policies at issue.

The governor’s press office released this press release about the school’s opening.

Governor Cooper spoke at the Sylvia Mendez Newcomers School ribbon cutting ceremony in High Point on Nov. 6. The Governor was joined by Sylvia Mendez Newcomers School Principal Christian Walter and Guilford County Schools Superintendent Dr. Whitney Oakley for a tour of the school.

“Schools like the new Sylvia Mendez Newcomers are both the right thing and the smart thing to do,” said Governor Cooper. “It’s the right thing because all children deserve a good education, and it’s the smart thing because our international population in North Carolina makes an annual positive impact on our economy of more than $3.5 billion and education will help that grow.”

“It is vitally important that our students can see themselves in the role models we hold up for them, and Sylvia Mendez is certainly a leader our students can look up to,” Guilford County Schools Superintendent Dr. Whitney Oakley said.

“As a school administrator, I feel the urgent need to be a dreambuilder for my students,” Sylvia Mendez Newcomers School Principal Christian Walter said. “Our students will become aware of all the opportunities that are out there… and they will learn what it takes to make dreams come true in this land of opportunities.”

“Representation matters,” Guilford County Board of Education Chair Deena Hayes said. “We are taking the steps to ensure that students see role models who look like them, in their classroom teachers, in their principals, in the district administration, and now, on our school buildings.”

The Sylvia Mendez Newcomers School will serve immigrant and refugee children in High Point. It will operate on a 10-month schedule, with extended learning sessions scheduled throughout the year as a counterpart to the Doris Henderson Newcomer’s School in Greensboro.

Governor Cooper has proclaimed September 15 – October 15 as Hispanic Heritage Month to honor and celebrate the history, culture and achievements of the Hispanic, Latino, Latinx and Latine communities across North Carolina.

In 2017, Governor Cooper signed Executive Order No. 23, establishing the Governor’s Advisory Council on Hispanic/Latino Affairs to advise the Governor on issues related to the Hispanic, Latino, Latinx and Latine population and how North Carolina can better support these communities.

In December 2019, the Governor created the DRIVE Task Force to recruit more teachers of color, improve equity, and increase diversity among the educator workforce. In January 2021, the DRIVE Task Force released its report with recommendations to increase teacher diversity, which have been reflected in the Governor’s proposed budgets, including increasing teacher compensation, expanding the NC Teaching Fellows program, and providing support for educators of color to complete their National Board Teaching Certification.

“Where dreams take off”

The Sylvia Mendez Newcomers School is “where dreams take off.” The students sang “What a wonderful world” by Louis Armstrong under the direction of Brian McCleave, their music teacher. Mebane Rash/EducationNC

Hear the students:

Thirty-eight students from 16 counties speaking seven languages from 4th grade through high school took part in the celebration. Mebane Rash/EducationNC
2022 Burroughs Wellcome Fund North Carolina Teacher of the Year Leah Carper, now the director of stakeholder engagement with GCS, noted the “beauty, hope, and common ground to be found” in our world, encouraging us to come together and work towards a more united future. “A future our students reach for everyday,” she said. Mebane Rash/EducationNC
Principal Christian Walter and Sylvia Mendez arrive at the ceremony. Twenty-three years ago, Walter came to the United States from Argentina. Mebane Rash/EducationNC
The Newcomers School allows students to embrace their new country while celebrating and preserving their family’s history, said Elaine Townsend Utin, co-founder and executive director of LatinxEd, who delivered the welcome. Mebane Rash/EducationNC
“Public education from cradle to career is the right thing to do,” said Governor Roy Cooper. Mebane Rash/EducationNC
Jose Oliva introduces Sylvia Mendez. Mebane Rash/EdNC

“Being a refugee is not a choice, and often being an immigrant is not a choice,” said Jose Oliva, the first Latino chief of staff of Guilford County Public Schools, who also serves on the strategic council of EdNC. “Newcomers Schools represent the gateway to America, to the American dream.”

Gabrielle Brown

Gabrielle Brown is a media relations specialist with the Guilford County Schools.

Carol Bono

Carol Bono is the Communications Manager of LatinxEd and an award-winning bilingual multimedia storyteller.

Giselle Thomas

Giselle Thomas is a broadcast journalist with WFMY.

Mebane Rash

Mebane Rash is the CEO and editor-in-chief of EducationNC.