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New club for EL students at WNHS and WSHS builds connections with peers, school and community

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Throughout the year, English Learner students at Westerville North and Westerville South high schools have gathered once a month to connect with each other and their school community and experience what it means to be a teenager in the U.S.

As part of a pilot program with Community Refugee & Immigration Services (CRIS), students have met after school for a variety of activities: an outing to the movies for the latest Black Panther film, ice skating, basketball and soccer games and impromptu dance parties. On Wednesday, they hosted a talent show where students performed traditional dances from their home country, demonstrated card tricks and played songs they’ve written, sung and produced. 

WNHS EL educators Amal Doom, Melissa Simashkevich and Jill Briscoe as well as WSHS EL teacher Anne Engelhart, have sought opportunities to host activities for their students but struggled organizing anything after school because of their limited access to transportation outside the school day.

Through financial support from CRIS, students now have their transportation, food and any additional activity costs covered for their monthly Community Activity Club. 

“It’s just a chance to be kids,” said Jeremy Hollon, associate director of community partnerships for CRIS. “I think sometimes they lose that because they are the interpreters, they are the breadwinners, they are the ones taking care of siblings, they are the ones having to do domestic chores at home and they lose their teenage years.”

“Any teenager should have every opportunity any student in high school has, which is staying after school, learning about art, learning about communities and just having fun like anyone else.”

Hollon said the club has been built into the CRIS Community Connectors Program at WNHS, which pairs young people new to America with mentors from around the community, providing them guidance, opportunities and a place to belong. 

The program has served as an opportunity to engage with immigrant families, connect students with their programs and learn if parents need help with jobs, housing or legal assistance. 

Hollon said Westerville is the first district to pilot the Community Activity Club, which has generated interest from other districts in the area. In addition to the social activities, students learn about life skills such as resume writing. Next month’s gathering will feature a visit to Ohio State University. 

“We’ve always been fighting to have more opportunities for our students to be more involved and to really feel a part of North instead of coming to school, going home and not being involved,” Doom said. “It’s been really fun.”

One student, who came to Westerville from Russia in November, attended the Community Activity Club gathering for the first time on Wednesday. He played a pick-up game of basketball, meeting new faces he hadn’t seen before. During the talent show, he played one of the songs he performed and produced to the 20 students in the audience. 

“It was really stressful — I was kind of shaking,” he said about standing before the crowd. But when he played his song and the audience burst into cheers and dances, he relaxed. 

“It was so cool.”