For most Americans, Thanksgiving is about expressing gratitude, spending time with our families, and enjoying a delicious turkey dinner with tons of equally delicious side dishes.
But for immigrants who have recently come to America, Thanksgiving – which can be traced all the way back to Native Americans and to the first pilgrims to North America – can be a curiosity. Truly, Thanksgiving is a uniquely American holiday and the United States is one of only ten countries that has a holiday focused on giving thanks.
A majority of the students at the iLearn Academies schools in Northern New Jersey are first generation immigrants. According to the charter school network’s director of development, Beanne DeGuzman, many students at these schools have yet to discover Thanksgiving for themselves.
So, the school network decided to introduce the holiday to students and give families an opportunity to celebrate, give thanks, and give back.
“We want them to celebrate Thanksgiving with dignity because many students are coming from low-income families that might not have the capability to celebrate,” DeGuzman said. “That’s why we said, ‘We want you to experience what Thanksgiving’s all about.’”
The result is a huge Thanksgiving dinner for families, a turkey giveaway for every student, a food drive, and an art contest – all funded with private contributions. The school also encourages students to give back to their broader community by volunteering their time and talents.
In advance of the dinner, students spend time in classrooms participating in “activities where they talk about what they are grateful for,” DeGuzman said.
Four years into the Thanksgiving program, it is one of iLearn Schools most popular celebrations.
This type of family-oriented commemoration has helped catapult the iLearn Schools network of twelve schools to be one of New Jersey’s most popular, and most successful, groups of charter schools.
The school matches a rigorous STEAM curriculum (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math) with an effort to educate students about important life skills.
“We want our students to be ‘life ready,’ meaning that they are ready after high school and beyond that,” DeGuzman said. “We talk a lot about life skills applications. For example: ‘What does a credit score mean to you, and why is it important?’ to ‘Why is opening a bank account important?’ to ‘How do you pick yourself up after failure?’ ”
The success of iLearn’s wholistic approach means that more students will soon be able to learn at iLearn schools.
“We are opening two new schools next year, and we’re expanding in New York, specifically the Bronx,” deGuzman said. “That’s actually a great achievement for us because as far as I know, we are one of the few charter schools that are open in New Jersey and also opening in New York.”
On this Thanksgiving, the expansion of those learning opportunities is something for which we all can – and should – be thankful.