IPS starting program for non-English speakers

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Each morning Mastora Bakhiet, a refugee born in Darfur, watched her children board a school bus with a driver she couldn't communicate with. The unfamiliar driver would take her children to an unfamiliar place. She spent the day anxious, just waiting for them to return home from school. They always did, but the worry was still there.

Bakhiet said she faced many challenges after moving to the United States in 2004, but being a parent of school-age children provided her with even more. Though she didn't live in Indianapolis when she first came to the United States, Bakhiet now has a chance to help immigrant families in Indianapolis Public Schools deal with the struggles of adapting to American schools.

IPS is creating a program that allows students who know little to no English to attend classes catered to their limited English language knowledge, every day for their first year in America. The program not only will help students, but it'll also provide resources to parents to help them adapt and communicate with the school, said Jessica Feeser, the English as a Second Language coordinator for IPS.

Starting in August, parents of seventh- through ninth-grade students who score below a certain level on an English language test can enroll their children in the year-long program, housed in the Gambold Preparatory Magnet High School building along with Enlace Academy, a charter school.

Feeser asked Bakhiet to be the parents' involvement educator at the new school, a fitting job for someone who understands the struggles of refugee parents.

The new program will help a population of the district that has increased by 50 percent in the past 10 years, according to the Department of Education. In the 2015-16 school year, the district served more than 4,300 students who were learning English.

The immigrant and refugee population of the state is growing as well. In 1990, just 1.7 percent of Indiana's population were immigrants. In 2013, that number rose to 4.8 percent, according to the American Immigration Council.

Previously, students learning English at IPS took one English as a Second Language, or ESL, class for one period each day.

"What we found is by the time students who are new to the U.S., by the time they get to the (higher grade) levels, especially seventh-, eighth- and ninth-graders, teachers are not really teaching students how to read and write in English. It's all based on the content," Feeser said. "This program will teach the content while teaching the language, to make sure we're reaching students at a level they are."

IPS' goal for the first year of the program is to serve around 80 students, and double that number the following year as IPS adds grades 3-6. They'll also implement a summer bridge program for upcoming 10th graders who came to America in the middle of the year.

Superintendent Lewis Ferebee encouraged the curriculum office to do some research on better ESL methods when he came to IPS. Tammy Bowman, curriculum officer, and Feeser traveled the country searching for the best fit for IPS.

They ended up taking bits and pieces of other schools' plans such as Columbus Global Academy in Ohio, Doris Henderson Newcomers School in North Carolina and Oakland International High School in California.

The new newcomer program stresses the importance of the family in the success of the children. IPS is partnering with faith-based organizations and the Immigrant Welcome Center to help parents adapt to American schools.

Terri Downs, the executive director of the Immigrant Welcome Center, said the newcomer program was a great idea, and fit in with her organization's goals.

"What entices us for being included in (the newcomer program) is so many of the newcomer families, both immigrants and refugees, will have more wrap around support to integrate faster into our community," Downs said. "Having a branch at newcomer school makes complete sense to us. It helps us reach a very vulnerable population (to help them) learn English, find jobs, make sure the family needs are taken care of."

Bakhiet, also the executive director and founder of the non-profit Darfur Women Network, mentioned a long list of problems immigrant families could have, simply because of cultural differences. For starters, many people struggle to figure out what's actually in American food, and food labels are no help, Bakhiet said. For people like Bakhiet whose religion requires her to abstain from eating certain foods, this was challenging.

The language barrier also could present problems. If a child was ever sent home with a note about poor grades or behavioral issues, non-English speaking parents couldn't read it..

Bakhiet said much of her own success adapting to America came from the help of others, such as an ESL teacher in Ohio. The teacher bought her daughter her first coat, a blue and purple Columbia brand, and would drive the family places when they needed it.

She thinks the newcomer school could provide those same benefits for other immigrants in IPS.

"I walked in their shoes," Bakhiet said. "Families are my passion."

The program will cost the district about $1.25 million for the first year and $1.53 million for the following year, according to information provided by Feeser.

Even in the second year when the program becomes more cost effective, the school system would be paying about $9,593 per student in the newcomer program. The median amount the school system spends on each student currently is $7,200 for elementary and K-8 schools and $8,000 for secondary schools, said IPS spokeswoman Kristin Cutler.

The district did not have data for how much they spend on English language learners outside the newcomer program.

The additional money will come from a non-English speaking grant from the state, the Federal Tittle III Grant and the general fund.

Feeser said that while the short term costs will be more, it could improve graduation rates of ESL students.

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