Isabel Kaul, who moved to Montclair from Colombia two and a half years ago, struggled with the isolation that came from not knowing English or the ins and outs of her new school system well. Now, she helps younger immigrant students experiencing the same, through the PEEPs program. (Courtesy Montclair Fund for Educational Excellence)

By DIEGO JESUS BARTESAGHI MENA
bartesaghi@montclairlocal.news

When Isabel Kaul, an 18-year-old rising senior at Montclair High School, moved to Montclair from Colombia 2½ years ago, she didn’t know English at all.

Kaul, speaking in her native Spanish, said she had difficulty finding resources that could help her as an English learner. She didn’t know where to go for guidance about which classes to take, or what systems and resources she needed to use as a student. 

“It was difficult because I didn’t know how to communicate with other people, make friends and do assignments at school,” she said. “I didn’t know how to communicate with my teachers if I had a problem.” 

In 2017, the Montclair school district served 31 students classified as English language learners, according to figures provided by the district to the Montclair Foundation for Educational Excellence and shared with Montclair Local. At the end of the 2020-21 school year, there were 75 students. 

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And, as Kaul did, many find themselves on unsure footing — eager to engage the school system and community, but unsure where to start.

In Kaul’s case, her parents didn’t speak English either, which meant she often had to navigate the school system on her own.

But over time, taking ESL classes, her English skills developed. She became more acclimated to the school system.

When schools shut down in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic, Kaul felt the monotony and isolation that many students experienced. It reminded her of the challenges she’d faced when she was new to the country, feeling cut off from others.

“At the beginning of virtual learning it was easy since we didn’t have a lot of assignments. But as the weeks passed, it became difficult,” she said. “I would spend every day on my desk and my bed.”

She found an opportunity to help other young students who were struggling as she had.

Kaul learned about a new program from the Montclair Fund for Educational Excellence called PEEP — for Peer-led Educational Engagement Program. The program began this past school year, pairing up high schoolers with middle schoolers (the “PEEPs”) to help them through the difficulties of distance learning. Participants are working together to design its next phase.

That included providing mentorship to Latinx students who’ve recently arrived in the country — who sometimes don’t speak English fluently, or who may not have the access to technology and infrastructure their peers do.

It helps in ways parents sometimes can’t on their own, MFEE Executive Director Masiel Rodriquez-Vars said. 

“It is not easy to navigate schools. It is hard to know, who do I call? And how do I get my kid the services that they need?” Rodriquez-Vars said. “And if you are new to the country, if you don’t speak English, if you have many jobs where you can’t sit down at your computer and call people and stay on top of all of it, it becomes very challenging.”

For many recently arrived families, accessing internet services becomes a hurdle. Families have to prioritize rent, food, clothing — and just getting situated in a new place — Rodriquez-Vars said. In a year of mostly remote learning, that was a significant obstacle.

In addition,  Rodriquez-Vars said, the number of young people coming to live with guardians, instead of parents, has increased, “and that makes it really hard because they’re kind of navigating this country, this town and school system on their own.”

Kaul was able to assist her PEEP, a then-sixth grader from Guatemala who moved to town a couple of weeks before schools shut down. They met three days a week and would go for walks around parks. That helped the sixth grader become more outgoing, more comfortable. She made a friend in one of her classes once in-person classes began.

“The program is sort of a support because when you arrive in this country, you don’t know anything and you don’t know a lot of things,” Kaul said. “Having people there to help you if you understand something is great. Also, you are not alone.” 

Marcos Gutierrez, 17-year-old rising senior at Montclair High School, was contacted by Rodriquez-Vars to be part of the program. He was paired with a then-sixth grader from El Salvador who arrived before the pandemic hit.

Gutierrez’s main motivation to become a leader was his father, who migrated from Nicaragua with his family when he was younger and went through the same challenges Gutierrez’s PEEP is facing.

“My Dad told me about this one teacher in high school that he cites — that if it wasn’t for her, her influence and her drive to try and make him a better student, he wouldn’t be in the place that he is today,” Gutierrez said, describing his father as someone who moved past those early struggles to become part of the community. “And because of that, he has given me the opportunity to be successful as a student.”

When Gutierrez was a middle schooler, he said, he’d also befriended and helped acclimate a new student who’d moved from Perú. 

His PEEP was shy at first. But once they started talking about soccer — their mutual favorite sport — Gutierrez got his PEEP to open up more. 

“I started talking to him in Spanish, openly trying to get to know him,” he said. “He goes to the same middle school I went to, so I tried to connect with him through that, and just started to bring up random topics, just to get to know him and see if I [could] find any commonalities between us.” 

Jack Rodriquez-Vars, a 17-year-old junior at Montclair High School and son of Masiel Rodriquez-Vars, has worked with three students so far — tutoring them, helping them make social connections and advocating for them with faculty. He said he became a PEEP leader because he had access to resources and wanted to give back to the community.

“I was given a support network solely based on how I was born and other kids were not,” Jack Rodriquez-Vars said. “So, in an effort to walk the walk of equitable education, this is something that high school students should be participating in. It is kind of paying it forward and using their privilege to help uplift other students in the Montclair schools.” 

Rodriquez-Vars met with his PEEP in Glenfield Park. They talked about the graffiti they saw and the woodpecker they heard while walking the park.

Over time, his PEEP also opened up.

“We observed the plants had grown over the weeks. He would ask me questions like: ‘Would you rather be that tree or that bird?’” Rodriguz-Vars said. “He would tell me, ‘We don’t have this in my country, but we have this.’ And we just bonded over a shared love of nature.”