San Antonio Express-News
by Jenny LaCoste-Caputo
Just a peek at Kerry Haupert's student roster is enough to reveal that her class at Mead Elementary School is far from ordinary.
Joselyne Bambarukontari; Saadia Abdi; Methode Niyonkuru; Mohammed Baraka.
And the list goes on.
They are outsiders, both literally and figuratively, sharing a portable trailer at the back of the campus. Sometimes, they wear mismatched clothes and chatter to each other in a mix of broken English, Arabic, Maay and Karen.
But the classroom — covered wall-to-wall with their artwork, professions of love for Haupert and English words labeling almost every inanimate object — is a haven for these children.
It's here that some of them picked up a pencil for the first time, learned how to hold a pair of scissors or write their ABC's.
Here they are learning English at an astonishing rate and discovering what it is to be an American.
Haupert's students are among thousands of refugees who have resettled in San Antonio through a program with the U.S. State Department. The agency sends refugees to several cities, channeling funds through local agencies. In San Antonio, Catholic Charities oversees the program.
In 2007, the program brought 48,000 refugees to America, with 4,394 making Texas their home. Catholic Charities resettled 600 refugees here last year and expects more this year.
Many of the children have spent their lives in refugee camps, never have been to school and can't read or write in their own language, let alone English. Some have witnessed terrible atrocities.
Their arrival presented educators in Northside Independent School District, where most of the refugees live, with a challenge unlike any they'd ever faced.
Learning the basics
Haupert's classroom is a first for Mead.
When the school opened in 2006, Principal Rebecca Flores knew she would be dealing with a challenging population.
Mead, just outside the South Texas Medical Center, is surrounded by apartment complexes. Ninety-eight percent of the students live in apartments, and half of the Mead students switch schools within the school year. The mobility rate is the highest in Northside.
But Flores had no way to prepare for what happened in August 2006. The school was flooded with refugees because the housing provided for them largely is in Mead's attendance zone. That first year, many of the children came from countries such as Iran and Afghanistan. While they didn't speak English, most were educated.
Haupert, a third-grade teacher, was intrigued by the diversity and decided to become certified as an English as a second language, or ESL, teacher. The next year, Haupert was assigned to a fourth-grade ESL class. But things changed again.
The refugees kept coming. But this time many of them were from African countries where children had fled genocide and lived in refugee camps with no opportunity to go to school.
“It's overwhelming,” Flores said when the unschooled refugees began arriving. “We're dealing not only with the academic side, but basic things. How to go to the bathroom, how to eat in the cafeteria.”
Flores said children would sit on the floor, tribal style, and eat off one another's plate. They would urinate on the playground and sometimes pantomime the violence they had witnessed.
With no playbook to go by, Flores began to develop one. Taking a cue from Colonies North, a neighboring Northside elementary school that also was seeing an influx of refugees, she decided to create a “newcomer” class.
Rather than place children in grades based on their age, they would put them together to work on language, behavior and social skills.
Flores found it was easier said than done when she began interviewing job candidates.
“I had people walk out of those interviews,” she said. “They didn't want to deal with it.”
Meanwhile, substitutes came to her office in tears, frustrated by the task. Finally, Flores found a long-term substitute willing to serve out the rest of the 2007-08 school year.
All the while, Haupert was desperate for the job.
“I felt like they were my kids,” said Haupert, who sat in on the interviews for a new teacher. “It was really hard for me to be impartial. I felt like we were interviewing for my job.”
Flores knew Haupert wanted the class, but didn't want to move her mid-year, especially since her students would take the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, the state-mandated test that determines a child's academic future and a school's accountability rating.
When the school year drew to a close last spring with no candidate on the horizon, Flores told Haupert the class was hers.
Their Christmas gift
On the first day of school, Haupert had 23 children in her class. Some had been in the country a few months, some had just arrived. Several were from African countries and three were from Iraq. She also had a large group of Burmese children who had been living in refugee camps in Thailand.
Most of the children were small for their age. One Burmese girl had watched her mother waste away and finally die in a refugee camp. Later in the year, when Haupert asked the children to bring pictures of their families, she would bring a photo taken in the camp of her young mother in her casket, her five children and husband gathered around.
That first day, Haupert gathered the children on the floor and pulled out pictures of her family. She spread them out, chatting about her life and things she liked.
When she was done, she asked the children to help her write sentences about herself. Twenty-three pairs of solemn dark eyes started back at her blankly.
Then a boy from Darfur, Abakar Baraka, who'd been in the country for six months but already was showing amazing progress, offered in accented English: “Ms. Haupert's favorite animal is a dolphin.”
Educators say children who arrive here when they are very young, even those who are unschooled, can catch up with their peers. At Mead, every refugee fifth-grader except one who took TAKS this year passed. Those children have been in school since third grade.
But even with the breakneck progress Haupert witnesses, there still are daily challenges.
In December, a flu outbreak hit Mead and several of Haupert's students came to school sick. But calling parents to pick up their kids isn't easy when those parents might not have a phone, don't speak English and have no transportation.
“We finally loaded them into our cars and took them home,” Flores said. “We're not supposed to do that, but these children needed to be home with their parents.”
As the weather turned colder, Haupert noticed many of her kids still were coming to school in sandals and flip-flops. She started hitting up teachers for donations and solicited her mom for help.
Together, Haupert and her mother found two Payless Shoe Stores willing to give discounts. Haupert had her kids trace their hands and feet on paper to make reindeer faces — their foot outline on brown paper was the long face and their hands on red paper, the antlers. Haupert used those tracings to determine shoe size.
On the last day before Christmas break, Haupert handed gifts to each student. Each student found a brand new pair of sneakers and socks inside.
She also lobbied for grant money for Saturday field trips that include the families, taking them places like theaters and museums. She hosted Saturday workshops for refugee families and even helped the boys in her class form a basketball team.
When Haupert missed a game and the boys lost, they told her it was because she wasn't there. She didn't miss another all season.
“Yes, it is a lot of time and some may feel that I do too much with the kids, but I do it because I want to help them to have every opportunity that my parents gave me,” Haupert said. “Their parents want to help them, but don't know where to go and what to do, so if I can guide the families and give them a little ounce of hope, then that is living the American dream.”
A nurturing classroom
But beyond the feel-good moments, there are staggering academic challenges to overcome.
Haupert capitalizes on her time, rotating the children in groups. She sometimes has help from an ESL tutor and college students.
On a recent morning, Haupert read with five children, while another group worked on spelling words, another on writing sentences and one more read with a tutor.
Haupert pulled a tall, red-and-white-striped hat on her head and grabbed a book called “My Red Scarf.”
“Is this fiction or nonfiction,” she asked. Most answer fiction. Haupert asks them to look carefully at the pictures. “When you have real pictures, it's non-fiction,” she said.
As they begin reading, there are countless interruptions. Saadia, a 10-year-old from Somalia, holds up a white board with her spelling words on it from across the room.
“That's good, Saadia. Practice again,” Haupert says.
“Again? I'm done” Saadia says.
Haupert's eyes are back on Rebecca Me, a 9-year-old Burmese girl, who is struggling to read a passage.
“Very good job, Rebecca,” Haupert says. “You have to believe you can do it, and you're doing great.”
Mohammed Baraka, Abakar's little brother, starts to read and stumbles over the word “shopping.” Haupert tells him to break it up. “Find a smaller word you know. What does ‘sh' say?”
Mohammed sounds it out. He turns the page and his face lights up as he sees a picture of sheep.
“In Sudan, there's lots of sheep,” he says, his voice high with excitement.
Haupert's classroom is like a cocoon where she can nurture her students and watch their progress. But they can't stay there forever.
Under state law, even the children who arrive with no English and no formal education must take the TAKS as soon as two years after arrival. That means they must move to traditional classes as soon as possible so they can be exposed to the material they'll see on the TAKS.
“Our refugee students have made amazing leaps and bounds since arriving at our schools and what our teachers and staff have done for them is phenomenal,” Northside Superintendent John Folks said. “But the state and federal guidelines need to be more flexible to give these students more time to acclimate to their new lives.”
Bills filed by state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte and Rep. Mike Villarreal, both from San Antonio, would exempt recent unschooled refugees for up to five years from TAKS, and appear to be on track to become law.
“I think people get it and want to do something about it,” Villarreal said. “This is not about rolling back our commitment to educating these students. It's about recognizing that our accountability system is hurting these children.”
Flores said she initially thought students only would stay in the newcomer class for a year, but with more time on their side thanks to lawmakers, she might let them stay longer.
She plans to move the newcomer class into the main building this fall. This year's arrangement wasn't meant to be permanent and she's concerned the kids feel isolated.
As for Haupert, she's not ready to see them go.
“I'm afraid they would sink,” she said. “They just need a little more time and they're going to do great.”