Nashville Newcomer Academy: Providing Support and Rigor for English Language Learners

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In this case study, we discover how one Nashville middle school integrates culturally responsive teaching practices and community engagement to empower newcomer students. 


Establishing the Nashville Newcomer Academy 

In 2015, under Karl Dean’s mayoral leadership, Nashville expanded its educational programs to serve better the diverse student and family population in Metro Public Schools. This expansion included initiatives aimed at more robust support for English Language Learners (ELL).

Although the city had a Newcomer Academy that enrolled approximately 40 New Americans, STEM Prep Academy Middle School Founder Dr. Kristin McGraner saw a need for broader support for recently arrived language learners. 

With Mayor Dean’s support, STEM Prep integrated the city’s Newcomer Academy into the middle school, expanding it to include new Americans in grade levels 5-8. This initiative, known as the Nashville Newcomer Academy (NNA), incorporates culturally and linguistically responsive teaching practices to help all students find a sense of belonging and relevancy in classroom instruction and the school community.  


Building Momentum 

STEM Prep’s NNA program opened its doors in 2016, enrolling 100 new Americans in its inaugural year. Securing enrollment for the 2016 school year was made possible through STEM Prep’s partnership with the mayor’s office and support from Metro Nashville Schools, which aided in identifying potential students for the NNA program. STEM Prep then recruited new American students through home visits and community-driven advocacy. 

Adena Petsch, STEM Prep’s Director of English Language Learners, highlighted several fundamental changes that contributed to the success of the program: 

1. Vision: The middle school leadership team developed a vision for high-quality instruction for Newcomer students, incorporating ESL best practices with research-driven literature on supporting newcomer students’ socio-emotional and academic needs. 

2. Staffing and Planning: STEM Prep administration spent the year hiring certified ESL teachers for the program and a dedicated Academic Dean tasked with coaching and supporting teachers in the Newcomer Academy. The counseling team was also expanded to include multilingual school counselors who understood the needs of newcomer students and the Nashville immigration policy environment and legislation 

3. Scheduling: The daily middle school schedule underwent significant restructuring to accommodate the NNA program’s requirements, including allocating time for co-teaching planning sessions and NNA-specific teacher-team meetings.


Commitment to Continuous Improvement

In its inaugural year, NNA adopted a sheltered instruction classroom model, allowing new American students to attend electives and lunch with their grade-level peers. However, the instructional model has since evolved. NNA now occurs for a portion of a student’s day, allowing enrollees to integrate into grade-level and Social Studies classes and electives. This shift has fostered stronger friendships between newcomer students and their grade-level peers, supporting socio-emotional development and integration in their first year.  

In October of 2023, Petsch and STEM Prep Director of Exceptional Education Rachel Burley participated in EALA’s School Study Tours in Chicago, IL, gaining valuable insights into effective educational practices for serving English Language Learners in diverse communities. During this school study tour, attendees participated in a principal-led meeting, where there was a discussion surrounding data and structures built to support New Americans at Willowbrook High School. They also observed an English Language Development (ELD) classroom at Addison Trail High School that included bilingual support for New Americans.

“My key takeaways for our NNA program revolved around the importance of supporting all teachers with professional development to incorporate strategies for newcomers,” says Petsch. “It also made me reflect more on how we can incorporate bilingual education and translanguaging support for newcomer students on a systematic scale.”  

Petsch and the team took that learning back to STEM Prep in Nashville.


Stories of Success 

Since establishing the NNA eight years ago, STEM Prep has seen many successes and remains dedicated to setting high-achieving goals for its learners. STEM Prep’s goal for all new Americans is to grow two years in their language levels within a single academic year, as measured by the WIDA ACCESS assessment administered each Spring. 

Ensuring that all NNA students have rigorous, grade-level work during their time in the Newcomer Academy allows these high-achieving goals to be met. All of STEM Prep’s NNA students participate in state testing during April and transition into grade-level classrooms fully in the subsequent year. Last year, NNA students achieved an average of 1.5-2 years of growth on the ACCESS assessment. Despite being in the early stages of development at the high school level, the NNA has already witnessed significant successes, including exiting three newcomer students from ESL services within a year.


Community Impact 

STEM Prep’s partnership with the mayor’s office has evolved over the years, and the Newcomer Academy now primarily enrolls New Americans through community advocacy. This collaborative effort has propelled STEM Prep to become Nashville’s number-one school for New Americans.

Petsch tracks the progress of NNA alumni and says she has seen firsthand the program’s transformative effect on both students and the Southeast Nashville community. “Many of our former students excel in grade-level content classes and assume leadership roles within our schools, including mentoring our current NNA students,” she says. She proudly notes that each NNA high school graduate has gone on to college, with many pursuing careers utilizing multilingual skills. 

Looking ahead, Petsch and her team hope to incorporate more learnings from the EALA School Study Tours to create a bilingual model of instruction for newcomer students. “Our current challenge at STEM is that we serve New Americans who represent a diversity of languages,” explains Petsch. “I think there is potential in recruiting our former NNA alumni to become teachers within our NNA program and pairing strong instruction with bilingual education standards and supports.” 

Petsch and her team also hope to build more socio-emotional support for newcomer students. Presently, NNA has a Social Emotional Learning (SEL) advisory group specifically designed for newcomers at the middle school. Petsch is developing a structured mentorship program between NNA high school alumni and current middle school NNA students. This initiative aims to foster a sense of continuity and support among NNA students across different grade levels, further enhancing the program’s impact on student success and community engagement.


Big Takeaways

Pestch addresses the foundation of support for developing a program such as NNA from the ground up, “It is critical when starting a program like this that you have a vision, solid school structures, and knowledgeable, mission-driven people to run the program” she says. “It is also essential to understand your community, their needs, and their cultures when designing a program like this one. This program is for them and built with them. It was done carefully, deliberately, and with much input from the community it was designed for.”

What would you tell other leaders or educators interested in doing something similar?

  1. Start by identifying the need, finding external collaborators who understand that need, and building the vision with stakeholders. Create structures following this vision-setting, and remember to ask for feedback from those responsible for creating and running the program at all stages. 
  2. When drafting the vision, seek out resources, literature, and best practices for ESL. Develop ways to measure progress and success. 
  3. Hire the best teachers and leaders in ESL, ensuring that they are aligned with your mission and vision. 
  4. Harness the power of the community! Involve your leaders in community involvement and conversation so that your program reflects the needs and culture of the people who will participate in it.

What are you still figuring out regarding the next steps for the Newcomer Academy?

“Our NNA program was originally designed as a middle-school-specific program. However, the number of new Americans at our high school doubled within the last year! Our support for Newcomer students at the high school is still in the early stages of development. We know we want all our high school students to graduate within four years and pursue the post-secondary options that they deserve. Working within the state guidelines for course credits and graduation is important to shape the trajectory of our high school NNA students. I look forward to developing even more robust support for them in the upcoming years!”


The EALA Promising Practices originate from research and insights by EALA partner organizations across the fields of disability advocacy, special education, civil rights, and K-2 nonprofits. We have compiled these key findings into one cohesive list: the EALA Promising Practices.

About The Author


Adena Petsch is the Director of English Language Learners for the STEM Prep Academy. She has worked  in the Southeast Nashville community for the past twelve years. Adena has served STEM Prep students and staff as a 5th grade reading teacher, literature intervention designer, literature intervention and RTI coach, Humanities and 5th/6th grade Academic Dean, before assuming her role as MS Academic Dean of English Language Learners for six years. She transitioned into her current role in 2023, and now provides coaching and oversight for all ELL students, teachers, and leaders across the STEM Prep network. Her life-long career goal is to create the most rigorous and effective multilingual program for students in the state of Tennessee.

STEM Preparatory Academy

STEM Preparatory Academy is dedicated to delivering a rigorous, inquiry-based education with a strategic focus on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. By cultivating a community of learning and academic excellence, STEM Prep will bolster the number of underrepresented students who graduate from the most competitive postsecondary programs and universities in the country and lead the discoveries and innovations of the future.