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For immigrant minors, student projects could make adjusting to U.S. easier

Social Work classes take a business approach, using technology and a ‘fast pitch’ competition to help unaccompanied kids

Jessica Reynaga and Chloe Valmore
Jessica Reynaga and Chloe Valmore pitched an app that helps teachers better serve immigrant minors. (USC Photo/Maya Meinert)

For unaccompanied children who immigrate to the United States, a confusing situation awaits: There may be family members to find, a baffling legal system, a language they may not understand.

But three new projects — two of them apps — may soon help ease the immigrants’ transition, thanks to students in Renee Smith-Maddox and Annalisa Enrile’s social change courses in the USC School of Social Work.

The 34 students’ final projects – presented in a “fast pitch” competition more common to a business environment – focus on helping newly immigrated minors like those from Central America whose numbers swelled last summer.

The fast pitch winner was Juntos! (Juveniles Uniting as Newcomers, Teachers Offering Support), developed by then-students Chloe Valmore and Jessica Reynaga. Juntos! is a mobile application designed to ease the integration of these children into U.S. schools by connecting their teachers to student information, culturally relevant teaching methods, community-based resources and more.

Common interest

Valmore and Reynaga found they share a common interest in education for children living in the inner city, where a large number of unaccompanied minors with U.S. sponsors end up. Reynaga, herself a former teacher, thought of ways to help these children from an educator’s perspective.

During my time as an educator I never stopped to think about how my students’ immigrant status affected their behavior or performance in the classroom.

Jessica Reynaga

“As I learned more about unaccompanied minors, I realized that during my time as an educator I never stopped to think about how my students’ immigrant status affected their behavior or performance in the classroom,” Reynaga said.

“These insights are really what led us to think of a tool for teachers of unaccompanied minors – something that would benefit both the teacher and student.”

With her connections at Alain LeRoy Locke College Preparatory Academy, the South Los Angeles charter high school where she once worked, Reynaga conducted a basic needs assessment with teachers through in-person interviews. That provided an inside look at the challenges the immigrant students face in the classroom and the difficulties teachers face supporting them.

Language and art

The second-place project – LISTENR (Linguistic Interpreting Services to Ensure Nurturing Results), developed by Stephanie Noriega, Mona Rupani and Julia Trueherz – is a mobile app that identifies the child’s native language, often an uncommon indigenous one, and matches that child with service providers or interpreters who speak it.

Third-place winner Sobreviviendo Through Art, created by Octavia Bates, Mary Arroyo and Ludin Chavez, teaches these migrant children elements of expressive art to give them the sense of empowerment needed to share their experiences in court testimony.

The top three projects will be matched with social innovation organizations – Taproot Foundation, artworxLA and Special Service for Groups – to see the ideas brought reality.

“This experience reminded me why I teach,” Enrile said. “Seeing these amazing innovations come to life … It’s been a great learning experience for us as educators, too.”

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For immigrant minors, student projects could make adjusting to U.S. easier

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