Refugees add to growing ethnic diversity in Wichita public schools

Washington Elementary teacher Priscilla Yeakley teaches a class of foreign-born students. (April 15, 2015)
Washington Elementary teacher Priscilla Yeakley teaches a class of foreign-born students. (April 15, 2015) The Wichita Eagle

A sign outside Marcela Richardson’s door at Washington Elementary School says, “Everyone smiles in the same language.”

Inside the classroom, one of 11 in the Wichita district devoted to recent immigrants and refugees, there are lots of smiles – and lots of languages.

The demographics of Wichita schools – already among the most ethnically diverse in the state – continue to shift, officials say. Over the past two years, the numbers of students who speak Arabic and Swahili have risen dramatically, and the district is enrolling more children and teenagers who have never known life outside a refugee camp.

“Wichita is definitely a diverse district, and it’s becoming more so,” said Stephanie Bird-Hutchison, a teaching specialist at the district’s Multilingual Education Service Center. “Every continent except Antarctica is represented in Wichita schools.”

That has created some new challenges for teachers and administrators. Because federal law requires schools to provide information to parents in the language they prefer, an Arabic speaker is on call to help teachers and others communicate with family members.

The district also contracts with Propio Language Services, an over-the-phone interpreting service, which lets teachers connect by phone with parents in any language in minutes.

“At the time that we opened, Spanish was about 85 percent of our business,” said Dalia Hale, director of multilingual services. “It still is, but we have added additional languages.”

This year, more than 350 students from other countries enrolled in Wichita public schools. Another 160 students who speak minimal English moved to Wichita from other states, primarily California and Texas.

Over the past few years, the numbers of Vietnamese, Lao and Cambodian speakers have decreased, Hale said, while the numbers speaking languages from Africa and the Middle East have dramatically increased, she said. Many in the latter group are refugees from camps in central Africa, Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan.

Currently, 81 languages are spoken by students in Wichita schools. The 10 largest language groups, in order, are: English, Spanish, Vietnamese, Arabic, Lao, Cambodian, the Chinese family of languages, Bengali, Urdu and Swahili.

“We’ve never had Swahili show up before this year in our data,” Bird-Hutchison said. “That has come on due to the refugee population that’s just emerging in Wichita.”

Ten years ago, fewer than 4,300 Wichita students required ESOL – English for Speakers of Other Languages – services to help them speak, read and write English. This year, 9,316 students qualified for services – about 18 percent of the district population.

Allocating resources

During a recent report on the changing demographics, Wichita school board members said they worry that a new block-grant funding plan for schools will mean the district won’t get additional funding for the growing number of refugees and other immigrants, who require significant additional resources.

“That’s a huge concern, because we will not be receiving additional money for those students,” said board president Sheril Logan.

Over the past few years, two local groups that rescue foreigners from war and oppression have helped resettle more refugee families in Wichita. Bird-Hutchison said those groups – the Episcopal Wichita Area Refugee Ministry and the International Rescue Committee – tell her the influx likely will continue, particularly as Syrian refugees begin to arrive.

“They’re not coming yet, but we know that they are in the pipeline to come,” she said. “Our refugees are coming for the most part from camp settings, and that presents a new challenge for us.”

A family that arrived recently from Central Africa has four elementary-age children who all were born in a refugee camp, Bird-Hutchison said. Most children in camps don’t begin school until age 7 or 8, and then receive only four to six years of schooling. Many teen refugees enter Newcomer programs at Wichita high schools with only a fourth-grade education, she said.

And then there’s the culture shock.

Cultural differences

“Older children frequently have experienced the worst (violence) that drove their families to leave their native villages,” she said. “Younger children have only ever experienced what it’s like to live in a hut.

“So the culture shock when they come to Wichita – with kitchens, and weird food, and the expectation that you wear shoes, and it snows? It’s fairly extreme.”

In Richardson’s Washington Elementary classroom one recent morning, 11-year-old Hani Ali from Somalia and 8-year-old Johana Vargas from Mexico sat side-by-side on the carpet and read a book together.

“A mother kangaroo always has a pouch,” the girls read slowly, as Johana pointed to each word. “She takes her baby with her in the pouch.”

When they finished the paragraph, the girls put their arms around one another. “The baby is cute,” Hani said, smiling.

“Yes, the baby is cute,” Richardson said. “And you read that very well. I like the way that you are working.”

Teachers work intensely with students to get them acclimated to their new homes and help them learn English, Bird-Hutchison said. After two to three semesters, most students in Newcomer programs are able to move to regular classrooms for at least some subjects.

“We have to think a little bit about how we’re going to approach those challenges,” Bird-Hutchison said. “We know we can handle it, but they are challenges, and we know eventually our community and our school system will be even stronger for them.”

Reach Suzanne Perez Tobias at 316-268-6567 or Follow her on Twitter: @suzannetobias.

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