Newcomer Instructional Coach Sara-Jean Lipmen (left) outside her office next door to on-site Staff Attorney Hannah Feldman (right).

By Dr. Sara-Jean Lipmen
Bernstein High School

Bernstein High School in the heart of Hollywood has one of the highest numbers of International Newcomer students in LAUSD. As Bernstein’s Newcomer Instructional Coach, I have the privilege of supporting these inspirational and determined students and their teachers. 

As teachers and educators, we all know you must get through Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to get to Bloom’s taxonomy. Many of these students have come to the USA as unaccompanied minors with little or no family. Many turn 18 while enrolled and then are on their own (some even before they turn 18) with a minimal support network to ensure student success. Through formal partnerships, leveraging community connections, peer relationships, and student voice, our school becomes their “village.”  

The first step in building this village has been to gather data: Who are the students? What are their strengths and assets? What are their goals and dreams? What are their needs? We work together as a school site to make the students feel safe. To support these students, I earned a certificate in psychological first aid for immigrant and migrant students. I introduce myself to the students, get to know them briefly, and joke, “Ask me whatever you need, I am here for you. I love my job. If you don’t ask me for anything, I don’t have a job. Let me know what you need so I can keep my job.” 

After the students have been in school for a while, I pull them from class to do a more in-depth intake. Most of the out-of-classroom team has also agreed to have an open-door policy. We have snacks and treats to remove any stigma of visiting our offices. This builds trust and safety with the students to come and talk to us. Additionally, I do first-year orientations that are spaces for students to ask questions and get information and for us to build community. All this qualitative data, combined with formal and informal assessments, has informed the support we as a school attempt to provide. Therefore, all the support we provide is determined by the students. 

The first and most obvious need is for legal immigration support. After reaching out and meeting with nearly every immigration legal aid organization in the LA area, we have a curated list of resources for students. Additionally, I was able to create a relationship and get an LAUSD-approved legal “fellow” full time on campus. She is an experienced immigration lawyer who has our students as clients and offers free legal clinics, and we conduct “Know Your Rights” workshops. Together, we’ve presented at conferences on how this partnership can be replicated around the country.

Another glaring issue is that many students must work to support themselves, the adults they live with, and/or send money back to the countries they have immigrated from. This is highly stressful for the students. One way to support the students was to create spaces for them to take a break. Through a Donors Choose project, each academic classroom has a mindfulness corner with a comfortable chair, carpets, pillows, and peaceful decor. This way, students who need to take a break due to trauma or just exhaustion can feel safe doing so in their classrooms and supported by their peers and teachers, removing the stigma. 

“Mindfulness corners” funded in partnership with Donors Choose for every academic classroom.

Another way we can lighten the load is by having less of a financial burden in general. Through a grant by CARECEN, I started the “Bernstein Closet” with thousands of items including clothing, shoes, toiletries, school supplies, books, and toys for students to shop for free. These items are donated by local businesses, Facebook Buy Nothing groups, the local neighborhood councils, faculty, and students themselves. Student volunteers help sift through the items and organize them. We work as a village to support the village.

Items in stock at the Bernstein free “Thrift Store.”

Many of the students do not have adults to care for them and often end up alone and unhoused or with the burden of paying rent themselves. I have had the opportunity to become a guardian as well as work with our amazing Specialized Student Services counselor to find shelters and housing for these young people. 

Most importantly, in addition to coaching their teachers and supporting professional development that supports students’ learning through an asset-based approach, my role has been to find ways to support their voices authentically. When a group of students was experiencing discrimination, we started a club to share their cultural heritage. I have partnered with various organizations for leadership programs and conferences for these students. This year, we will be going to DC, not only to experience the city and learn about the federal government but also to advocate through storytelling for expediting laws affecting young immigrant students like themselves. 

Through valuing the students and listening to their needs, goals, and dreams, we know we are making a measurable difference. In addition to having a connection to the school and reporting that they like school, student attendance, grades, and graduation rates have increased. I love my job because these students will change the world. I get the privilege to be a part of the village along the way.