VIDEO: Newcomers class at Washington Elementary
Marcela Richardson underlined the suffix “teen” on her smartboard at Washington Elementary School. She was trying to show her class how to make the numbers 14 through 19 out of the numbers 4 through 9 on Monday morning.
She teaches a “newcomers” class, meaning that the students are new to the district, with most of them new to the country. In a class of 20, students come from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Vietnam, Turkey, Mexico, Saudi Arabia and Uganda, ranging in age from 6 to 10.
That means Richardson’s students need to learn both how to say the numbers and how to add them.
The Wichita school district is asking the state for more money to teach one group of these students who need extra attention: refugee children. The district wants around a million dollars to help teach the more than 200 refugee children they expect to serve this year.
Moses Kamanzi, 9, one of those refugee children from Uganda, looks around the room as Richardson speaks and rubs his lips on the edge of his desk. He can barely pronounce the numbers 1 to 9.
He is supposed to be in third grade. But he has a hard time waiting in line. He hasn’t practiced sitting “criss-cross applesauce” on the carpet. And neither he nor his parents speak English, so he didn’t complete a single night’s homework last week, the first week of school.
This is how it goes, according to Richardson, who has taught in multilingual classes in Wichita for more than 12 years. Across from Moses sits Abida Fnu, a refugee from Afghanistan. Last year, Abida was in a similar position to Moses’. This year, she is one of the top students in the class.
“Class, class,” Richardson calls out.
“Yes, yes,” the students respond.
“What comes after 11?”
“12,” Abida says, one of just a handful of students to respond.
At the end of the year in Richardson’s class, students create a trifold display with information about the culture they come from: the food they eat, the holidays they celebrate, the clothing they wear. They have to do it all in English.
For her presentation last spring, Abida wore a beautiful dress and a hijab, a head scarf that she doesn’t normally wear at school. Richardson said Abida worked hard to practice everything in English and even answer questions that other students in school asked her when they visited the newcomers class in the gymnasium.
Students like Moses and Abida take extra time and resources. For most of the class time, Moses has an adult working directly with him or right next to him.
That means that, on the floor on the other side of the room, Joscelyn Carrillo, 7, who just moved here from Chihuahua, Mexico, has to sit and wait. Only after a few minutes, when Richardson comes over and gives instructions in Spanish, does Joscelyn learn how to put together the counting cards. She, a girl from Turkey and a girl from Pakistan take turns putting together cards so that they add up to 10, even though none of them speaks the same language.
When possible, Richardson makes do by having the one student from Saudi Arabia who is returning to the class for a second year work with the two other Arabic-speaking students.
In addition to Richardson and Priscilla Yeakley, a former bilingual teacher who has worked as a classroom aide with Richardson for four years, there is a third adult in the room, Connee Hughes.
Hughes is a “foster grandparent,” which means she gets $2.65 an hour, plus gas money, to help out, she said. Sedgwick County just cut 4 percent of the program’s budget, which was used to get federal matching funds to supply another 40 percent of the program’s budget.
Richardson said the more adults she has in the room, the more small groups she can split the class into. Just to Moses’ right sits Leslie Flores, who spent the past three years in Mexico. She said she has lived the rest of her 10 years in Wichita. She needs extra help because both her parents speak Spanish at home. Leslie’s still learning to read in English, but she’s also gone to school for several years and is far ahead of Moses academically.
If teaching them both in the same room sounds complicated, it is. Richardson said that, with the refugee students in particular, she just has to be patient.
It’s worth it, she said. “We’re showing everybody that you’re important, no matter where you come from, no matter what language you speak,” Richardson said. “We don’t teach just English or math; this country is more and more diverse, so we need to teach them to respect each other.”