It isn't unusual for new students in Heidi Stuberg's West Fargo class to pocket their snack-time pretzels and graham crackers.

"They're so engrained that when you see food, you need to save it," explained Kerri Whipple, the School District's English Language Learner coordinator.

This year's 30-plus refugee students, who are part of the first class at West Fargo's Newcomer Center, have only been in the U.S. for a few weeks - or months at most. From Liberian to Bhutanese, they speak six languages.

But communicating isn't the biggest barrier for Stuberg, the center's sole ELL teacher. Instead, she has to combat the refugee camp mind-set that followed most of her students to the U.S.

"(In their countries) if they were first in line, it meant they got to eat," Stuberg said, adding that she has to teach them not to fight when they line up. "It doesn't matter who's first (here)."

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The Newcomer Center serves new Americans in first through fifth grades. They're bused in from three elementary schools every day to spend 2½ hours learning the lessons usually taught to U.S.-born students by kindergarten teachers or by watching "Sesame Street."

It's up to Stuberg to combine teaching classroom culture - raising hands and lining up - with the basics such as naming colors or the days of the week.

"We're really focusing on classroom behavior," she said.

Stuberg's students have limited or no English proficiency, limited or no formal schooling and have lived in the U.S. for less than a year. They're referred by Whipple, who is a strong advocate for the center's concept.

"Nothing was really tied together (before)," Whipple said. "(Now) it's all connected. It makes newcomers in the program the priority."

In the past, newcomer ELL students reported to ELL classes in each school. They interacted with other ELL students who likely lived in the U.S. longer. That's the model Fargo and Moorhead schools use.

But Whipple said that way of doing things missed the cultural component that can be offered by a separate center. With a place in West Fargo just for them, newcomers learn the basics together.

Once they "graduate" from the program - which happens when they've developed enough literacy and classroom skills - students resume attending ELL classes in their individual schools.

For middle school and high school students, the Newcomer Center model is integrated within their buildings and focuses more on academic tutoring instead of school basics.

Two years ago, Whipple and Vonnie Sanders, Fargo's ELL coordinator, discussed the possibility of a joint Newcomer Center to serve both districts. But plans fizzled.

"(The idea is) kind of on hold," Sanders said. "We just don't have the numbers to warrant it right now."

But West Fargo did have the numbers, and forged ahead with plans to open its doors at the Lodoen Center this fall to a population of new refugee students steadily on the rise.

"It's not something we can plan really well," Whipple said. "We're setting a record every year - every day."

Readers can reach Forum reporter Kelly Smith at (701) 241-5515