Visitors to Nora Elementary School are greeted by an array of national flags, which are somewhat overwhelmed by the plethora of Chinese paper dragons, Burmese drawings and other works of art from around the globe.
The Washington Township school has welcomed more immigrants than a lot of other schools – in 2010, about 46 percent of its student population was made up of English language learners, according to the Indiana Department of Education.
Olga Tuchman, an education consultant for the Department of Education, works with schools like Nora Elementary to find ways to accommodate this diverse wave of students. She is an immigrant herself, from Russia, and knows the adjustments that families must go through.
“When I came 15 years ago, everything was different — how we communicate, what we consider betrayal, what we consider moral or ethical,” she said.
Tuchman says language is the largest challenge for immigrant and refugee students, and schools are using an assortment of services to reach out to them. “Schools hire bilingual helpers and interpreters to help them, using their native language. They use cooperative grouping and peer learning and teacher mentoring and peer mentoring — that works well for many schools,” she said.
Salwa Almetwali, 9, didn’t know any English when she first enrolled at Nora about two years ago. Now a fifth-grader, she came to the United States from Iraq, by way of Jordan, and still receives extra help to master the language and understand American customs.
“They help us with the stuff we need to know like how to speak and make new friends with people,” she said.
Mastering English is not just a matter of learning the language, explained Jessica Feeser, English as a New Language coach for Washington Township schools. Many approaches are needed, not just to handle the range of languages spoken by families but also to address varying attitudes toward education in general.
“We may have some students who come to the United States with a very strong foundation of literacy in their primary language, and those students tend to catch on a little quicker,” she said. “For students who come to us perhaps from refugee camps where there is very little formal schooling, we are finding it’s more difficult because they are not used to being in school.”
Tuchman said in general, schools devote the first semester of newcomers’ enrollment to intensive English language instruction and programs that familiarize the students with American customs and culture.
“I always tell the schools, people get to know each other only when they work on something together. What is needed is structured planned activities assigning different projects so that the children learn together and accomplish things together,” she said.
To ease the transition, Nora tries to adopt some of the customs of the new students, such as decorating the school for Chinese New Year or singing songs from different cultures in different languages.
U.S.-born Nora students embrace their new classmates and are eager to learn about the countries they come from. Salwa’s classmate, Jaime Gause, 10, appreciates having a diverse school population.
“I’d rather have all types of people because if you just have similar types of people then you don’t get to learn new things from other people and you don’t get to meet new people,” she said.
Fellow fifth-grader Maison McQuistion, 10, says most students share Jaime’s enthusiasm.
“Everyone one in the class likes to meet someone else, likes to learn something new and they like being a guide to someone who just moved here,” she said.
Salwa, too, enjoys having friends from many countries and says most of her classmates are very kind to her. In fact, being with diverse students has made her want to expand her skills.
“I would like to learn Spanish, and this is because my friends speak that language and I would like to know what they say,” she said.
Feeser says all students benefit from being in a diverse population. “We are really preparing global citizens. They are going to go out into the work force and know so much about so many different people because of their experiences in school,” she said.
* * * * *
Earlier this year, members from Y-Press paired up with peers from Radio Arte, a youth media project in Chicago, to report on youth in their cities. Ali Tahir, 15, Y-Press, and Adriana Velasquez, 20, Radio Arte, created this piece about diversity in Indianapolis.
Copyright 2011 Y-Press