CEDAR RAPIDS — Students huddled just inside McKinley Middle School’s side doorway on Valentine’s Day, while a line of idling cars formed outside. Through the shivering pack and down the hall, Zumani Macheremo was planted behind the counter of a concession store.
Moments after school had ended for the day, some of his classmates paused to buy bags of Fritos, plastic bottles of blue Gatorade and sequined, plush hearts.
“Can I have Cheez-Its and Smarties?” 11-year-old Matthew Buckaloo asked, sliding a handful of tickets he’d earned for good behavior across the counter as payment.
“Smarties and Cheez-Its,” Zumani, 14, said. “And that’s the last of them.”
Richard Ortega, the teacher for the school’s English Language Learner program, helped Zumani lock up the Bear Claw Store.
“Get yourself a Gatorade since you were the last one here,” Ortega said as Zumani, who speaks Kikuyu at home, turned to leave. When the eighth-grader was out of earshot, Ortega added, “He carries himself very well.”
McKinley STEAM Academy welcomed English learners this school year for the first time in at least a decade. All the English Language Learners living near McKinley used to be bussed to other schools in the Cedar Rapids Community School District.
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As Ortega revives the program, one of his goals is to help his students — most of whom speak Swahili at home — integrate themselves into McKinley STEAM Academy’s broader community.
It’s why his students operated the school store this month, and why he’s starting an ELL club he hopes will appeal to multilingual students.
“I see students, sometimes they come into the country and they don’t know how to make friends or how to act,” Ortega said. “Sometimes they’re just quiet, and they don’t want to say anything. They’re afraid to speak because they don’t know the language and are afraid they’ll say something wrong or not correct.”
Zumani, an advanced ELL student who moved to Cedar Rapids from Idaho, said he’s found friends at McKinley and feels involved at the school. But as he and three other students closed up the Bear Claw Store, he was quick to add that doesn’t mean he always feels as if he fits in.
“Sometimes, kids that went here for at least two or three years, they’ll be talking stuff ... horrible stuff,” one student said. “So you kind of don’t feel like we belong here.”
“We’re all from Africa,” another added. “They think Africa is a bad place.”
The 14 students in the ELL program are part of a diverse community at McKinley, where a little more than half of McKinley’s student body is white, about a quarter is black, 10 percent identify as multi-racial and 5 percent as Hispanic.
For administrators and teachers, making all students feel welcome in the school’s halls is never-ending work.
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“I think one thing that we tried to be really open about is where we are in our current political climate, social climate, just how things are,” Assistant Principal Justin Blietz said.
“I don’t think it’s any question throughout our country. ... We can’t hide from that, and we can’t run from that. We have to face that, and we have to listen to people and work and problem solve together.”
When students arrive in Blietz’s office with issues of discrimination or other injustices, he said his intention is be sure students know they’re heard and their feelings are valid.
“I think in other settings where I’ve been, if a comment like that were to come up or something were to be questioned, it would be stifled and it would be shut down — ‘that’s not true,’ ‘you shouldn’t feel that way,’ ‘this rule isn’t wrong,’” he said.
“What I’m proud of is that our staff and the systems that we’re creating work on making sure that everybody’s voice is valuable. Everybody’s voice deserves to be heard.”
Ortega, who grew up in Texas, hears from his students about feeling picked on by students or left behind academically by teachers.
“They were just fish out of water,” said Ortega, who sometimes wishes for a Spanish-speaking student on his class roster. “Slowly I built up that relationship with them.”
He recently took students on a field trip to an elementary school with similar racial demographics, Kenwood Leadership Academy, to gin up ideas about murals that could be added to McKinley’s walls.
“We’ve got plans to make it more inviting to all cultures,” Ortega said.
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