Immigrant Experience: Schools tackle needs of students from other countries

Trying to get parents engaged

Tawnie Kerska (from left), fifth grade teacher, talks with Kisi Fundi, 10, fifth grade, and Kanyere Mushegera during an open house at Hoover Elementary School in Cedar Rapids on Monday, August 25, 2014. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
Tawnie Kerska (from left), fifth grade teacher, talks with Kisi Fundi, 10, fifth grade, and Kanyere Mushegera during an open house at Hoover Elementary School in Cedar Rapids on Monday, August 25, 2014. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — Homework and dinner time converge in Mazahir Salih’s kitchen every day after school. The smell of roasted chicken collides with a peppering of questions from four of her children about math problems, patterns and telling time.

“I know math in my language,” said Salih, who was a civil engineer in Sudan before she came to the United States in 1997. “I don’t know some of the math in English, and there are different ways to solve math problems in English. Sometimes it’s hard to help my son.”

Salih said she wishes there were after-school options for her children and other immigrant students to get extra help when she cannot. It’s just one of the many dilemmas students and their parents run into.

Cedar Rapids and Iowa City schools have seen an increasing number of immigrant and refugee families over the past few years. Schools continue to have a significant number of Spanish speakers but are noticing a growth in Arabic, Swahili and languages from several African countries.

Iowa City schools have 900 students in ELL programs this year compared to 211 in 2009. In Cedar Rapids schools’ ELL programs, there are 642 students compared to 308 students in 2009.

The students’ cultural backgrounds and levels of education are diverse and pose new issues the schools are trying to address.

“As the number of language needs has increased, it has become a little challenging,” said Lisa Boyer, Iowa City Community School District English Language Learner (ELL) coordinator.

Students in ICCSD’s ELL program has more than tripled since 2009. Enrollment in the Cedar Rapids Community School District’s ELL program has more than doubled since 2009.

School officials such as Rama Muzo, CRCSD intercultural community resources specialist, said the numbers demonstrate a growing presence but doesn’t completely reflect the shift. A growing number of children are born in the United States to immigrant parents, speak English and don’t enroll in ELL.

“We have other students who have already exited the ELL program, so they’re not counted on the ELL program but, at the same time, their family still needs services,” he said.

Emotional Needs

Muzo, who grew up in Tanzania, often bridges the gap between the school and its non-English speakers. He said he’s seen an increase in families from Burundi, Rwanda and Congo, some who fled conflict and spent time in refugee camps.

School staff don’t always know what students have been through, but those experiences can follow them into the classroom.

“Social and emotional needs are quite huge for children who come in from conflicted backgrounds,” said Boyer in Iowa City.

Iowa City High School Principal John Bacon said the school has a network of support for students that includes family- and student-support specialists to connect students with community resources.

In Cedar Rapids the district has partnered with community health organizations to bring therapists into the schools.

Tonya Hotchkin, a Tanager Place clinic therapist, works once a week with seven to 10 children at Roosevelt Middle School.

“I think for a lot of these kiddos they’re experiencing attachment difficulties,” Hotchkin said.

The organization has therapists in several other Cedar Rapids schools. Four Oaks and Behavioral Health Intervention Services also partner with the district for mental health support.

Addressing the influx

In Cedar Rapids, Muzo said schools are trying to help immigrant students and families outside the classroom, too. The school district contracts with about 10 interpreters for parent-teacher conferences or whenever a parent visits the school.

Common languages include Swahili, Vietnamese, Somali and French.

The ICCSD also uses translation services to connect non-English speaking parents with teachers. Boyer, in Iowa City, said officials have seen an increase in the number of Arabic speakers.

Boyer said as officials continue to expand ELL offerings, they’re also providing bilingual learning materials for students and educating content-based teachers on the diversity of their students through methods such as “shelter instruction,” which incorporates English language learners with regular content classrooms.

Roosevelt Middle School, in the Cedar Rapids district, launched a student ambassador program this year that pairs new non-English speaking students with a returning student who speaks the same language to show them around. An ELL teacher at Hoover Elementary launched a cultural club for students, coupled with a diversity council for parents.

“Most of the parents feel like they’re left out,” Muzo said. “What we’re trying to do is avoid undermining the parental role, which is important for student success.”

Ibrahim Nzigirabarya and his family moved to Cedar Rapids in August from Idaho, where they lived for four years after living in a refugee camp in Tanzania. Nzigirabarya is from Burundi but fled to Tanzania to escape conflict.

Nzigirabarya said the CRCSD school staff was helpful and connected them with Muzo.

“I can speak English, but if I’m not available and my wife has a question, she can talk to Rama in Swahili,” he said.

Salma Abdelrhman and her family moved to Iowa City in May from Sudan. Adjusting to a new school system has been hard, and she often feels she doesn’t know how her second-grader is doing in school.

“I feel like there is a lack of communication,” Abdelrhman said.

Boyer said the ICCSD is working on improving outreach to families of ELL students. Parents are being invited through phone calls and translated letters to meet with teachers and to participate in surveys on ways the school can improve.

“We are constantly re-evaluating and trying to improve what we do,” Boyer said. “Every day is a learning process.”

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