When Eradi walked into his first day of 5th grade at LEAD Cameron Middle School, he didn’t speak a word of English. Instead, he spoke only a remote dialect of Swahili, that no one in the district could interpret.

“He could barely look at you in the eye,” said Angela Gibson, the English Language Learner Coordinator for LEAD Cameron.

Eradi made the journey to Nashville from a refugee camp in Tanzania three years ago. He was welcomed into LEAD Cameron’s Newcomer Academy — a place where all of the students are experiencing traditional American school for the first time.

Gibson said Cameron currently has students from 17 different countries, many who come with little to no English. In fact, 69 percent of LEAD Cameron’s students have a background in a language other than English. The majority of students speak Spanish and Arabic but some, like Eradi, speak remote dialects from their home countries.

“I love working with these kids, their backgrounds, and their families. They bring so much with them. They can contribute to our school and our culture. It’s been such a gift,” said Annie Baldwin, who provides English Language Learner (ELL) support at LEAD Cameron.

In 2014, school leaders realized that the large influx of immigrants and refugees to Nashville and LEAD Cameron, a zoned charter school, was something that needed a tailored approach.

Students need several hours of intense ELL classes every day in order to effectively transition into their grade level subjects. Administrators created the Newcomer Academy to meet the need.

LEAD Cameron serves some 100 newcomers throughout the school year in grades 5-8 with six dedicated faculty and staff members. And even though the students may speak different languages, their teachers say adjusting together to a new school and new country helps them to ease their transition.

“Our class, a lot of it, is an opportunity for them to just be comfortable in school. They are all going through silent stages, shock, and a lot have been through trauma. So it’s a few months to feel okay, to feel like they’re a part of something, feel like they can participate,” said Newcomer Academy Foundations teacher, Hannah Newman.

The students start with Hannah Newman’s foundation class where they intensely focus on vocabulary and the fundamentals of the English language. Newman speaks Spanish fluently and is able to help many of students ease in by using a combination of both Spanish and English.

Typically after one semester, they are able to transition to Lindsay Roe’s class where they use more grade level content to learn English.

Eradi, now in 7th grade, is a graduate of Newcomer Academy and attending classes on his grade level. He not only looks you in the eye when speaking to you, but his teachers say he generally has a broad smile on his face most of the time.

“I raise my hand if I know the answer but not if I don’t know it,” Eradi shared. “My favorite class is social studies, math, and English.”

LEAD Cameron is proud to see dozens of students every year graduating from Newcomer Academy speaking English, learning on grade level, and getting one step closer to living out their dreams.

“To provide access to opportunities for students and families, is why I do this work. When you have a student come in and you see them in 2 or 3 years and they’re excelling in classes and they’re talking about colleges and what they want to do in the future, it makes it so worth it,” Gibson said.