By Madelynn Coldiron
David Nole, principal of Henry F. Moss Middle School in Warren County, says the school’s diversity is one of its strengths, and for the last year, it’s been made even stronger by the district’s new service for immigrant and refugee families.
“It’s absolutely outstanding,” said Nole, whose school enrollment includes 12-15 percent refugee and immigrant students. “It gives our families such an opportunity to get acclimated to our area. Any student that enrolls, the first place they have to go is the GEO Center so they can actually sit down and try to see where they’re at, what they’ll need.”
The Warren County district established the Gateway to Educational Opportunities Center last summer. During its first year it served 138 students and their families, helping them with the paperwork needed to enroll in school and with countless other aspects of their life in the community.
Board Chairman Mike Wilson calls the center a “clearinghouse” that represents an efficient use of taxpayer money.
“The GEO Center has really been helpful for us – it’s kind of a way for us to have a point of entry, a kind of clearinghouse for those folks when they get here. It’s probably just as beneficial for them as it is for us,” he said.
Before the GEO Center, said Skip Cleavinger, director of the district’s English Learners Program, enrollment “was basically a fiasco for the kids,” particularly if siblings were in different grade centers and the family had to traipse to multiple sites.
“It’s difficult in a school for the office staff when a family walks in and no one speaks English to know how to just get the most basic enrollment paperwork done,” said Cumberland Trace Elementary School Principal Mary Evans.
The center sends a packet of information with the student to the school, containing enrollment forms, ESL paperwork and the like. It also administers a standard English language proficiency test and helps with special education evaluations so that information is on hand.
“So when they do come in our door they can say they’re ready to go – it makes the transition into our school much more smooth,” Evans said.
Warren County is home to the Bowling Green International Center, a refugee resettlement agency, which is, in part, why the school district has students from 35 countries, speaking 49 languages, Cleavinger said. Their English language skills run from zero to quite a bit of English, especially those from African countries, he said.
The most common languages spoken are Spanish and various forms of Burmese. Both the International and GEO centers are part of a local network of agencies that assist the refugee and immigrant population.
In addition to the help with enrollment, the center also is a resource for the schools. “They’re very informative – if anything comes up, it’s ‘Mr. Nole, these are the things we need to put in place or need to do,’ then I go with it,” Nole said.
“The more we know about these children, the better we’re able to teach them,” agreed Evans.
The center similarly is a resource for the families. Staff members help the families coordinate food, clothing or other necessities, Cleavinger said, “and there are a lot of issues like transportation, language supports in the community. A lot of parents want to take ESL classes themselves and we try to coordinate that.
“We try to give them the message that, we know you’re here, we’ve helped you with the first steps in the formality and now we want you to know that anytime you need us, come back.”
Ninfa Pounds, district interpreter for Hispanic families, most often talks with parents, who, she said, “want to know all the little details of their child in school.”
“They want to know about the school system, what are they doing for my child, how can I help my child. … They’re very, very good about wanting to help,” she said.
The center also houses the GEO Academy for 18 to 21-year-olds who would be in high school. Many need lots of credits to graduate, while others have significant credits but simply don’t speak English. The goal is to give them language skills and prepare them to take high school equivalency test and eventually attend tech school.
The work of the center points up the need for more training in the schools, Cleavinger said, because content teachers don’t know the strategies for teaching English language learners to give them the support they need.
“Nationwide, this is a problem,” he said, because teacher training programs don’t cover second-language interventions. Center staff work with teachers and give them instructional materials that provide both challenging content and support linguistically.
“A lot of content teachers, if a kid can’t respond in a full sentence — and many of them can’t — they just sit on the side,” Cleavinger said.
During the 2012-13 school year, the center will offer teachers professional development in ESL issues, including a basic orientation, a teaching method for students with lower linguistic levels and how to determine language objectives in addition to skill and academic objectives.