Immigrants find education, hope at East High School

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Immigrants find education, hope at East High School
The Kansas City Star

Of course it would take monstrous forces to drive families from their homelands.

These are some of the things immigrant students in Kansas City’s East High School have seen:

A hoodlum’s gun in Juarez, Mexico, aimed in the face of 14-year-old Pamela Martinez’s pregnant mother.

Unremitting civil war in Somalia that chased 17-year-old Fardowsa Mursal into a Kenyan refugee camp for the first 14 years of her life.

Suffocating poverty in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, that 16-year-old Steeve Henrius’ father was working to escape long before the earthquake that maimed Steeve’s brother.

Assassins’ bullets in Baghdad, Iraq, that missed 20-year-old Omar Mohammed but killed his friend as they ran.

Of the 1,031 students finishing the school year at East, 582 are immigrant students learning English.

They speak 35 languages and come from dozens of countries. A map in the school’s main hall charts their global journeys in streams of colored ribbons converging on Kansas City.

“Some of our students had never been in school,” East Principal Tommy Herrera said. “Some couldn’t read or write in their own language. … We have students who (when they first arrive) would rather sit and squat instead of sit on a chair at a desk.”

The first lesson may be as simple as saying “pencil” and shaping a student’s fingers around it, said language teacher Fatimah Daud.

“I’m amazed at how far they can advance in a few short years,” Daud said. “I don’t think people really understand the population we serve.”

Kansas State University Professor Socorro Herrera, no relation to the principal, has visited schools “from New York to California” in 30 years of work in intercultural education, she said. “And this is the highest number of second-language learners I’ve seen.”

Kansas City has concentrated its language programs within the general high school at East — aiming to give immigrant students more special services with opportunities to blend in with mainstream students.

“Kids are thriving there,” Socorro Herrera said.

Students in Daud’s Level II communication arts class took an impromptu inventory last week — counting their languages:

Spanish, Vietnamese, Swahili, Burmese, Karen, Somali, Mai-Mai, Bantu, Pulaar, Senegal, Grabo, Arabic, Turkish, Kurdish…

About 20 students in all, at least 14 languages. All of the students growing adept and confident in English.

Some are seniors, preparing to graduate on to college. Many of the younger students are ready for mainstream high school classrooms.

“Once they get it, they run with it,” Tommy Herrera said. “They’ll pass up American-born citizens.”

The four students who stepped aside to tell their stories are running full-flight. They’re relishing education that they had long hoped for, and that determined family and international workers made possible.

“America” was a mysterious prayer Fardowsa kept hearing growing up in the refugee camp in Garissa, Kenya. Many were trying to get there, and always anxiously waiting the reports from caseworkers of who had been processed to go.

The idea of someday landing in that unknown country scared her.

“But my mom told me: ‘You’ll get to school. You’ll learn English and then you will help me,’ ” Fardowsa said. “You’ll get your dream.”

She was luckier than many refugees. Her camp had a school with international workers. She remembers “Michael,” who told her about American schools — middle schools and high schools with many rooms and class schedules.

Steeve, in Haiti, had a clearer picture of what was ahead in America. His father, determined to get his family to the U.S., enrolled Steeve in an American school in Port-au-Prince as he was growing up.

That school “is all ashes now” since the Haiti earthquake in 2010, Steeve said. It lies ruined like so much of his neighborhood between the blue ocean and green mountains he misses so much.

“The beautiful country crashed right in front of me,” he said.

An older brother, who is now enrolled in East’s adjoining school for severely disabled students, suffered paralyzing injuries.

His father keeps working in Kansas City in a nursing home, as they work to bring more of their family to Kansas City.

In Iraq, Omar’s father was a doctor and family members were important leaders among Shia Muslims in Baghdad.

After the U.S. launched the Iraq war in 2003, terroristic, religious warring put his family under assassination threats, Omar said.

The men who fired on him and his friend jumped out of a car with Kalashnikov rifles.

He wanted to be a doctor like his father. He wanted to be a Muslim cleric. After his family first took refuge in Syria, he soon understood that whatever path he would be taking, it would be in the United States.

Sheila Velasco’s science class is a bit on the noisy side — and that’s the way they like it at East.

“We want them talking,” Tommy Herrera said, watching the class. “I like to hear them giggling, interacting, using the language. That’s how they learn.”

Pictures of omnivores, herbivores and carnivores accompany the words on the board. Velasco is bringing every student into the conversation.

“I was ESL,” Velasco said after class. She was an “English as second language” immigrant as a teacher, arriving scared from the Philippines 15 years ago.

“I can relate how it feels when you know something and you want to say it but you lack the words,” she said. “You lack the confidence about the words.”

The school’s strategy fills the white boards in the principal’s conference room. Every teacher is a reading and writing teacher — whether teaching science, math, social studies, art or P.E.

The immigrant students at East build their language through academic content. Teachers have to ensure that they are learning, and the proof is in their speaking and writing it.

But this is no “English only” approach.

Native languages are savored here. With a small army of language specialists to help interpret, students express themselves in the best way they know how, and use that to build English.

“The fact that a new student doesn’t speak English doesn’t mean they don’t know anything,” said Alicia Miguel, the director of language services for Kansas City Public Schools. “They are not a blank slate. So how do you tap into that? How do you find out?”

The ringing sound of languages rising with the English not only helps immigrant students find confidence, but it fosters a school-wide embrace of the full range of cultures.

The school’s homecoming dance, Steeve said, becomes a world tour of fashion, food and dance.

“I find it very, very, very interesting,” Steeve said. “You hear it and you say, ‘That’s a cool language,’ and I want to learn what they’re saying. ‘Wow, that’s Swahili? That’s Vietnamese? I want to learn that.’ ”

As another year wound down, the four students measured how far they’ve come.

Fardowsa remembers her first months in Missouri with her mother when they were scared to even walk outside their apartment.

The rough English she had learned sounded nothing like the English she was hearing in America. Her accent was impossible for others to understand.

They had no car, and were afraid to walk because the first intersection in every direction was a swarm of cars and colored street lights they did not understand.

Now, after three years, she feels she’s on her way. She’s a high school junior who knows she can become a doctor.

Pamela, since leaving Juarez just a year ago, has discovered she is an artist. She wants to travel to Japan and immerse herself in the art of graphic novels. She is looking into attending Kansas City’s art school at Paseo Academy next year.

“I want to be an author,” she said. “I want to learn Japanese, and Arabic and Vietnamese.”

Omar is a cleric again, now at a Kansas City mosque. He will be enrolling at Metropolitan Community College-Penn Valley, then going on to the University of Missouri-Kansas City and medical school.

Steeve laughs at the thought of what may come.

“I feel free like an eagle,” he said.

He sees himself working in disaster relief, swooping into desperate communities, helping people, he said, as his father does now in nursing facilities.

“Or I may become a movie producer,” he said. “There are so many things in the United States. I’ve got so many backup plans.”

To reach Joe Robertson, call 816-234-4789 or send email to