They’ve lived inside barbed wire. They’ve fled genocide or other violence.
One student from the Middle East had lived through a kidnapping, while another experience the kidnapping and murder of a sibling. The child was killed while the family listened on the phone.
“School doesn’t matter after that,” said a teacher in the newly released Nebraska Loves Public Schools film “Seeds of Hope.” The film was screened at Chadron State College last week at the launch of Chadron High School’s strategic planning outreach.
It’s difficult to get a student to focus on math when they are still dealing with those types of trauma, another teacher pointed out in the film.
“Seeds of Hope” put a human face on the English-language learners (ELL) programs in Chadron, Omaha and Schuyler. The state has experienced a 113 percent increase in ELL since 2000, and the goal of such programs is to teach them English as fast as possible so they can be successful.
Not all ELL students are fleeing violence. Chadron’s population of about 40 Marshallese students aren’t recovering from that kind of trauma, but still face challenges.
“It’s an overwhelming feeling being in a brand new culture. It’s the hope for their children’s future that keeps the parents going,” said Cheryl Welch, the ELL teacher at Chadron Public Schools.
“My job is really multi-faceted and quite exciting,” she continued. She has to help them navigate both the culture and the language so they can survive in the classroom, working with them on speaking, writing, reading and listening skills.
“Learning another language is very difficult,” Welch said. While students may be able to carry on an informal conversation (how are you, what did you do this weekend), it takes 7-10 years to master the academic terms crucial for classroom success.
“We were not prepared for an ELL population coming in 15 years ago,” said Chadron High Principal Jerry Mack.
Some of the district’s Marshallese students are in America with relatives and haven’t seen their parents in years, he said; that’s just one challenge they face.
“We’re trying to find ways to help these kids,” Mack said. “They give us a lot of effort. They’re just a great group of students and worth all of the effort we give them.”
That effort often extends beyond the student at any school that has ELL kids. The movie made it clear that the programs must focus on the entire family, and a panel of Panhandle educators from Chadron High, Chadron Head Start, the Pine Ridge Job Corps and ESU 13 reinforced that afterwards.
“It’s about the family as a whole and teaching them how to live in America,” said Chadron High’s social worker Heather Berry.
They may not know what a rental agreement is or how to set up a bank account. If they’ve lived in poverty or been in refugee camps for years, they have no understanding of how to use a refrigerator, stove or microwave. Many of them are coming from warmer climates and have no concept of the necessary clothing required to survive a Nebraska winter.
Those types of obstacles can have an impact on the student’s learning, but the panel was unanimous that it can be overcome with one simple action by the schools and the community at large: reaching out.
Nancy Swiftbird, an instructor at Pine Ridge Job Corps, said her students have said they learned more English in one week after making an American friend than they did in the six months before that event.
“Everybody can be a teacher and reach out,” she said. It can be as simple as teaching them to use the stove.
Opportunities abound to sit down and visit with the families, Welch said, while Julie Downing from ESU 13 noted that food and music are universal and great ways to connect. But it shouldn’t be a one-way street. DeeAnn Koerber of Head Start and Berry said some of the best memories they have come from learning something about the Marshallese culture.
“The immigrant and refugee population brings so many good things,” Swiftbird agreed. “I’ve learned just as much from them as they have from me. They’re my heroes. Different is different. It’s not right. It’s not wrong.”
“Realize the incredible potential. The very resilience and grit that got these people here is what makes them incredible assets,” added Kiowa Rogers from ESU 13.
The screening and panel served as the kickoff for Chadron Public Schools’ two to five year strategic planning outreach initiative. The film is a good example of just how far reaching public education is.
“It’s more than you can see from the street,” said Superintendent Dr. Caroline Winchester.
As part of the outreach, Winchester is asking that local organizations or groups contact her about speaking during their regular meetings to learn about what’s going on in the schools. The district is also seeking answers to the following questions:
*What is particularly satisfying to you about Chadron Public Schools. What is particularly concerning?
*What value does CPS bring to the community?
*How might CPS increase their collaboration in the community?
*Given the declining approval of schools, what’s your hunch about what is producing that?
The public at large is invited to answer those questions as well. Simply drop the information off or mail it to the school. The district also welcomes suggestions on what the public would like to see for programming.
“We may not be able to accomplish them right away, but sow those seeds for us,” Dr. Winchester said.