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Diversity embraced at midtown schools

Citizen Staff Writer



All it takes is a tiny handful of rocks and a circle traced in the dirt at Blenman Elementary to bring together students from Liberia, Russia, Iraq, Cameroon, Sudan and Vietnam.

The jacks-type game is popular at Blenman, one of a trio of schools serving a midtown area that is home to thousands of refugees and other immigrants.

Blenman, Doolen Middle School and Catalina Magnet High are safe havens, mini-societies where all the students get nurturing, mentoring and guidance to adapt to and appreciate difference.

They may not speak each other’s languages, but they all are trying to learn the one that will make them fit in: English.

The younger the children are, the easier the transition, both academically and socially.

At Blenman, diversity is celebrated.

“Everything is more interesting than if everybody came from the same country,” said 10-year-old Rebecca Mopadish, a fourth-grader from Sudan.

At the middle school level, Doolen Principal Charlotte Patterson said, “there’s a pre-teen and early-teen environment where cliques often form and tensions can be high even among students of all one nationality.”

“Most of the issues will always be there, but we try to help the students to divert their attention toward what they can control at school that will help them achieve their goals and dreams,” she said.

At Catalina, some students have vastly different political and religious beliefs, which can make for great conversations, said teacher Julie Kasper.

“They learn that if they want to be heard themselves they have to learn how to listen,” she said.

Nearly one-third of the Blenman students entered school this year speaking 13 native languages other than English.

In one hallway an expansive mural of the world has little pieces of paper stuck to countries where students come from.

The classroom, of course, is essential in the melding process. Teachers like Kenra Gilbert and Jessica Weil have English language learners play games with cards and blocks or do experiments that encourage them to investigate and learn concepts as they also learn English.

But the playground may be just as important.

Sabrina Karakchi, 7, an outgoing Russian first-grader, said she used to just smile a lot at lunchtime.

“I didn’t speak to the kids in Russian because they don’t know Russian,” she said.

But one day, soon after she arrived, someone asked her to play tag, a universal game, “and we kind of became friends.”

Second-grader Kouedji Nemlin, 9, from Liberia, said that in kindergarten, “I stayed to myself because I couldn’t speak English that good and people didn’t understand me. But after awhile, my friends taught me more English and now it’s more fun.”

Iraq-born fifth-grader Miriam Abdullah, 11, who teachers say has made tremendous progress in one year, is learning English as a fourth language.

Her first is Arabic, but she picked up Lebanese and Syrian because her family lived in those countries also.

At Doolen, 13 percent of the students have primary languages other than English or Spanish – 24 languages, not including dialect differences like Arabic and Somali, Principal Patterson said.

With past family woes and tribal or sect differences among refugees adding to language barriers and teenagers’ identity crises, the school found it necessary to create mentoring and buddy systems to help the students get along.

But the bottom line at Doolen is education. “We get students to focus on their future and their potential to overcome with an education,” Patterson said.

There is success most of the time, she said, but it takes the school working as a community.

“Mediation, translator intervention and discussions about expected student behaviors only have a limited impact,” she said. “We need to help personalize their experiences into something to which they can relate” and use that to motivate them.

Catalina teacher Kasper has about 40 students in a class that is like a small United Nations. They participate in a literary and visual arts program, the Finding Voice Project, where they research, photograph, write and speak about social issues.

A recent topic was dating across religions and why Muslim males could date women of other religions, while Muslim women cannot date non-Muslim men.

“The class is a safe place where students can express their views and concerns,” Kasper said.

Teachers at Blenman, Doolen and Catalina say they are amazed at what some of the students have endured in their home countries or in their efforts to come to this one.

“You can’t imagine the stories you hear,” said kindergarten-first grade teacher Delann DeBenedetti.

“I’ll never forget a little 7- or 8-year-old boy from Bosnia who told of how his family had to flee in the middle of the night,” she said. “It was like it was straight out of ‘The Sound of Music.’

“Our children in America have no idea. These children have surmounted such odds.”

Refugees’ diversity celebrated at midtown schools

How they do

Blenman Elementary, Dodge Middle and Catalina Magnet High schools were all ranked “Performing” by the state last year.

The state rates schools as “Failing,” “Underperforming,” “Performing,” “Performing Plus,” “Highly Performing,” and “Excelling” based on a complex formula that incorporates standardized test scores and participation rates, attendance rates, graduation rates and performance on federal rankings.

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