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Can free backpacks and mentorship help immigrant and refugee students adjust to South Philly?

Taggart Elementary's new Welcome Center. December 10, 2018 Category: FeatureFeaturedLongResults
After traveling on foot from Mexico, spending years in a Taiwanese refugee camp or even escaping the Taliban, children from across the world settle in South Philadelphia to learn at Taggart Elementary School.

The diverse K-8 institution serves a large population of refugee and immigrant students, with about 40 percent receiving English as a Second Language education and 30 languages drifting through the school’s hallways every day.

“Throughout the school year they get more and more students who have lived through any imaginable trauma, who don’t speak English, whose parents don’t speak English very well or don’t understand the education system, don’t have jobs, everything that you can imagine,” said Martina Mansell, the corporate giving coordinator at the Navy Yard-based ecommerce company RevZilla. “These kids come to school and it’s like, ‘Now what?’ How are you supposed to be a normal kid?”

To help these students better adjust to Philadelphia, Taggart has heightened its years-long partnership with RevZilla to launch a Family Welcome Center in the new year that will provide comprehensive support services for new immigrant and refugee students and their families. Incoming students will receive free school supplies and a week’s worth of school uniform clothing, and be matched with two student mentors in a new onboarding process.

(The center was expected to open formally last week, but the event was delayed because Mayor Jim Kenney could not attend following the death of his father. School reps said the center is slowly beginning to be used now.)

Mentors are selected from among approximately 20 sixth- and seventh-grade students from different countries. On their first days, immigrant and refugee students will meet with their mentors to pack a book bag with school supplies in the welcome center before touring the school together later in the day.

“With the current political climate, Philadelphia is a very welcoming city and we want to reflect that in what we’re doing in our school, letting families know that wherever they came from, whatever they’ve been through, its a welcoming place for them,” said Student Support Specialist David Hensel. “It’s a really loving place where we really care for each other and we’re building a really strong community, and we want them to be a part of it.”

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Taggart Elementary School’s new Family Welcome Center. (Photo courtesy of Martina Mansell)

Immigrant and refugee students will then have scheduled check-ins with their mentors every few weeks alongside Hensel and Taggart’s school counselor to monitor how students are adjusting socially and academically.

Taggart students come from countries including Pakistan, Mexico, Congo, Taiwan, Burma and Nepal, and speak languages including Swahili, Arabic, Indonesian, Spanish, Mandarin and Lao. Many student mentors are refugees or immigrants themselves, Hensel said.

“Having kids that are from the same culture, of a similar background, that are also refugees that speak the same language, that’s really important to making those connections,” he added. “But also, it’s important to have … another kid [as a mentor] who was born and raised in Philadelphia, who can teach them about Philadelphia and things that go on here. Having those two different perspectives for each [student] I think will be really helpful.”

Hensel hopes the student mentorships will reduce bullying often experienced by refugee and immigrant students, who he said “make tremendous strides” both academically and socially within their first couple years at Taggart.

“They can help make that beginning rough time a little easier so that they can show that improvement that we often see a lot sooner,” Hensel added. “It’s really about trying to do your best to keep those things from holding them back from all the amazing potential they have.”

The Taggart-RevZilla partnership began in 2016, when Mansell set out to create a corporate sponsorship for a local elementary school through the School District of Philadelphia’s Office of Strategic Partnerships. A former French teacher at Valley Forge Military Academy and College, Mansell knew teachers need varying supplies across grade levels and subjects, so teachers could request specific items in RevZilla’s first Taggart school supply drive.

Since the initial fundraiser, RevZilla employees — who receive paid volunteer time off — often spend their lunch breaks or free time cleaning up Taggart’s schoolyard, organizing the school library or completing other tasks. Mansell regularly meets with Taggart representatives at quarterly meetings to discuss how RevZilla can continue helping the school.

(Courtesy photo)

“Developing the trust was finding ways to get into the school and get my employees into the school as well, and making sure that I never stepped on anyone’s toes,” Mansell said. “I know that educators know what they’re doing and most of the problems that schools have is because they don’t have enough people and enough money and enough supplies to actually do the work that they know that they need to do.”

The Family Welcome Center has been in the works for about a year, and RevZilla has contributed about $5,000 toward stocking the center, Mansell added. The ecommerce company also collaborated with the Nationalities Service Center, an immigrant and refugee services nonprofit, to translate brochures and signs for the center.

“I wanted to make sure that we were showing these students and their families the utmost respect and … that starts with acknowledging that the languages they speak and the cultures that they come from are 100 percent valid and welcome,” Mansell said.

The welcome center will also offer support services for parents of immigrant and refugee students, who can use the center’s two computers and meet with bilingual counseling assistants to get help registering for healthcare, applying for jobs and finding other community resources.

Taggart plans to use the space to collaborate with parents more on projects, like growing a community garden.

“I’m really hoping it’ll bring more of the parents together, so they can build friendships too,” said Nancy Markey, the Taggart school nurse. “When the parents are home, they’re kind of by themselves. … They [can] develop more friendships within the school, especially when they have students in the same grade together.”

For Hensel, the ultimate goal of the Family Welcome Center is inspiring similar initiatives across Philadelphia.

“We just want to keep making a better experience for students and their families, [and] this is just another way that we can do that,” Hensel said. “Hopefully it goes well and other schools can look at this and say, ‘We’d like something similar for our new students,’ and we can help them do that.”


Full disclosure: Martina Mansell, RevZilla’s corporate giving coordinator, is a Generocity member. That relationship is unrelated to this story.

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