A company hired last year to teach some of the city’s most at-risk high school students will open a separate Sioux Falls school next week for immigrants and refugees.

Ombudsman Educational Services, based in Nashville, Tenn., will enroll 60 to 75 students in a new school at the city’s Multi-Cultural Center downtown. The school district will pay Ombudsman $4,000 per student, which is less than what the district gets from the state each year.

The Multicultural Academy is for students whose advanced age and limited experience with formal schooling or the English language make them highly unlikely to earn a diploma in a traditional high school by age 21.

Ann Smith, the Sioux Falls School District’s federal programs coordinator, said many refugee students enroll in school here with dreams of becoming “doctors and nurses and lawyers” and returning to help their home countries. But if they don’t earn enough credits for a diploma in the school year they turn 21, they are not allowed to continue in school the next year.

“It’s really heartbreaking,” she said.

Administrators hope the Multicultural Academy will help 17- and 18-year-old high school freshmen earn credits faster and get their diplomas.

Each student at Ombudsman schools is assigned a computer to work independently at their own pace. Last year, the company consulted with the Global Institute for Literacy and Language Development to adjust its model for English Language Learners. The company chose Sioux Falls for a two-year pilot program.

“Hopefully, we can be successful, so they can roll it out to other parts of the country,” said Marcia Gaudet, the new school’s director.

Gaudet used to teach ELL students in Sioux Falls and was the public school district’s ELL instructional coach the past two years before taking the position with Ombudsman. She said the Multicultural Academy’s three teachers — one for science, one for math and one for English — also used to teach in the district.

The school day will be bookended by small group lessons, but otherwise students will mostly work on their own with the teachers available to help.
“There’ll be as much help as they need but they can go at their own pace,” Gaudet said.

Meanwhile, students from Southeast Technical Institute will mentor the high school students to satisfy their own service learning graduation requirement.
The school will operate in two four-hour shifts, the first group starting at 6:45 a.m. and the second at 10:45 a.m. But the school year will run through July 18 for a total of 215 school days, compared to 178 for traditional Sioux Falls schools.

One benefit of Ombudsman’s short school days is they allow students to work significant hours or handle other responsibilities outside of school.
Lincoln High School ELL teacher Amy Cleveringa said her older students commonly work significant hours while attending school, and some drop out to work full time.

Cleveringa’s classes have students ranging from 14 to 21 years of age. She thinks creating a separate school for the older students will be good for everyone.

“I think it’s more difficult sometimes for the older kids,” she said. “It’s disheartening when they realize they’re not going to be able to finish.”
Smith said the ideal age for students starting at the Multicultural Academy is 17 or 18, and the school won’t be a good fit for everyone. If they’re older, they might be better off dropping out and enrolling in Southeast Technical Institute’s GED program.

However, Gaudet said Tuesday that she was in the middle of enrolling a 20-year-old student from Lincoln High School.

“They might not get it finished, but we will do our best,” she said.

The Multi-Cultural Center was a good fit for the new school for a variety of reasons. It’s in central Sioux Falls and accessible by city bus, and it has complementary services; students may take the center’s driver education courses, be trained as interpreters and get job skills training. The building also houses Falls Community Health.

“It can be a one-stop shop,” said Christy Nicolaisen, the Multi-Cultural Center’s executive director.