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IWS Featured in the Post Dispatch

International Welcome School provides safe learning

for refugee children

 By Doug Moore

ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH

ST. LOUIS — The ninth-graders at International Welcome School were asked to write about their perfect place.

The boy from Nepal wrote of a rain forest where "I hear the lion snoring." For a boy from Eritrea in eastern Africa, the ideal spot was in the mountains, where "the wind touched my heart."

The assignment by teacher Judi Holroyd was to show how different the responses could be in a school filled with students from 23 countries. But for one Haitian boy with limited English skills, the perfect place is universal:

"The place is in peace, no guns shot."

 

Children who attend the International Welcome School come from refugee camps or villages destroyed by war or disaster. They arrive from countries where an education is not an automatic part of growing up. Most have been told by family members that it is an opportunity to realize the American dream.

But being put into an urban American school classroom with limited or no English and unaccustomed to U.S. culture and its education system, the new arrivals often fade away, said St. Louis Public Schools Superintendent Kelvin Adams.

"They are coming and dropping out of school," Adams said. The district had to do more, he said.

So instead of placing refugee students into traditional classrooms, a school was established last year specifically for them. It is housed in the Central and Visual Arts Performing High School, where the district also runs its English for speakers of other languages program, better known as ESOL. It includes a preschool, adult education classes and family counseling.

 

Students from kindergarten through ninth grade are taught here, often sitting next to someone who looks or sounds nothing like them — and very well may have come from a country they have never heard of.

But at the Welcome School, on the corner of Kingshighway and Arsenal Street in south St. Louis, they all get to learn the language and culture together, a gradual acclimation into a new world that will help the students succeed when they are transferred into one of the district's traditional schools, said Nahed Chapman, who oversees the district's bilingual and migration programs.

Students wear uniforms of polo shirts and dark pants to emphasize equality and to keep distractions to a minimum. However, cultural differences are respected and taught in the classrooms, she said.

Chapman had been hoping for years for a separate school for refugees. The district runs "welcome centers" in four of its schools, but Chapman said it became clear that more was needed. Putting all the students in one place alongside the programs for refugee families such as computer training, a preschool, counseling and English classes would serve refugees better, she said.
She began looking at other cities. Columbus, Ohio, Philadelphia and Chicago have similar schools.

She worked with the Center for Applied Linguistics in Washington, which did a needs assessment study for St. Louis schools. The city continues to become more diverse with St. Louis one of the top 10 refugee resettlement sites in the country.

When Adams became superintendent in 2008, Chapman proposed her idea for an International Welcome School, with the needs assessment study in hand.

She knew Adams had a lot on his plate. He was overseeing a district that lost its accreditation and was looking at ways to make deep cuts, including closing schools and laying off teachers.

Still, Adams was convinced.

"OK, we'll open a school," Chapman recalls him saying. "I almost fell off my chair. He said: 'The gifted have a school. Why not you as well?'"

The school set up shop in one wing of the performing arts high school. Twelve teachers serve 230 students.

Barb Chiodini's fifth-grade class is an example of the school's diversity. The 22 students represent 12 countries. Last month, her students put on an Earth Day play. Every student had a part including Masuo Masuo from Kenya, Yassin Hamadi from Somalia and David Sindamziga from Burundi. Iraq has the largest representation in the class, with seven students.

"There is a desire to learn. They want to do well," said teacher in charge Christine McCoy. "They went through hell to get here. Our goal is to make it as wonderful and safe here as possible."

Adams said having the school in the same building where the district provides other refugee services made sense. He is impressed with the school as it completes its first year.

"It's been a blessing for the kids and the district," Adams said.

"I think it's one of the many hidden gems inside SLPS," added Rick Sullivan, president of the Special Administrative Board that oversees the district.

Despite the positive reviews, Chapman remained concerned that the Welcome School might fall victim to school closings and mergers. She knew that Cleveland Junior Naval Academy, now housed at the former Pruitt Middle School north of downtown, was merging with Central, meaning the Welcome School and ESOL would need a new home.

Adams and the Special Administrative Board settled on the closed Kottmeyer Big Picture High School, at 1530 South Grand Boulevard. The International Welcome School expects to have about 300 students this fall.

Chapman said it was difficult to measure academic success in a new school for new arrivals, but the students will be tracked as they move into traditional classrooms. How successful they are there will ultimately reveal how successful the efforts are at the Welcome School, she said.

Early indicators are promising. Average daily attendance is a few percentage points higher than the overall district's 92 percent. And at a parent-teacher conference, participation was 81 percent.

Antutu Kalefo has four children at the Welcome School. He takes English classes through ESOL. His family, originally from Eritrea, was in a refugee camp in Ethiopia before arriving here. He said having his family in the U.S. learning the language and planning for a future was something he never thought possible.

"I'm in school. They're in school," Kalefo said through an interpreter. "I'm very happy by that."