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Schools help refugee children adjust as communities learn lessons in diversity

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 3, 2009 - Bayless and Affton school districts were nearly caught off guard years ago when a wave of immigrants from Bosnia began moving in and enrolling their children.

The experience turned out to be a good lesson in geography, religion, culture and tolerance for the districts and surrounding communities -- so much so that some residents even enrolled in a free course to learn more about the history of Bosnia.

"To be honest with you, there were many people, myself included, who didn't know where Bosnia was or the horrible war Bosnians were going through," says Leslie Forsythe, an English language learner (ELL) teacher in the Affton District. Her job is to help children with limited English learn the language and succeed in American classrooms.

At that time, school districts were playing catch up, and teachers were just beginning to attend university-level ELL classes to help them understand the best way to teach the influx of war refugees from Bosnia and elsewhere.

The districts eventually produced good ELL programs, and that success is one reason Bayless thinks of itself as symbolic of districts that became the changing face of public education.

At one time, the student population in blue-collar Bayless, situated just south of the St. Louis city limits, was mostly American-born whites with a sprinkle of black students from the city-county desegregation program. But in two decades of accommodating ELL children of immigrant families, Bayless has become one of Missouri's most culturally diverse districts, serving a rainbow of youngsters representing 17 language groups.

The growing presence of ELL students in Bayless and in many other area school districts not only has brought more cultural diversity to classrooms but has added another dimension to the discussion of race and education.

State school officials say there are more than 19,000 ELL students in Missouri. While that number might seem small in a state with about 900,000 public school students, ELL youngsters have more than doubled in a decade. Although Bayless is said to have the most ELL students per capita, there are about 1,300 in the St. Louis public schools, by far the largest concentration of such students in the region. Only Kansas City, with 2,300, has more.

Thousands of Bosnians

The major wave of refugees to arrive in St. Louis in recent years came from Bosnia. In two decades, at least 50,000 refugees from that war-torn region have resettled here. The first stop for many was St. Louis' Bevo area, where tension initially flared between Bosnians and established residents, in spite of the fact that Bosnians opened businesses, bought homes and added vitality to some declining neighborhoods on the South Side.

"I Know the experience that my grandparents went through when they came here from Sicily," says Stephen Gregali, 14th Ward alderman. "I say to people often that I hope my grandparents were treated better than some people treat the Bosnians."

Gregali says Bosnians face discrimination partly because they are perceived as outsiders, part of an unfair association of terrorism with the Muslim faith that many Bosnians embrace.

European Muslims

Even so, others argue that this community has been more open to Bosnians than to many other immigrants.

"First of all, the Bosnians are white," says Hisako Matsuo, a sociologist at Saint Louis University. "Their skin color has made it easier for them to integrate than would be the case with groups such as Asian Indians and Vietnamese. Vietnamese have been here for years and they haven't integrated."

In addition, she says many Bosnians blend in by being "cultural Muslims" who don't make Islam and its practices a visible part of their lives. Their Slavic language makes it easier for Bosnians to learn English, she says, but adds that Bosnians don't necessarily want to lose their culture and become fully Americanized.

"It's important for them to retain that ethnic identity, an identity of being a war survivor and refugee" and being victims of genocide "in the same way that Jews don't want to give up their identity" as being victims of the Holocaust.

Protecting Bosnian Identity

Some young Bosnians feel the pull between two cultures, unsure whether to fully embrace American ways or hold onto the values handed down by their parents.

One feeling the pull is Jasmin Sekic, 19, a student at Webster University. Dressed in jeans and a T-shirt and speaking flawless English, he could easily be taken for a typical South Side teen. But last Saturday evening, this teen was at the South Side Islamic Community Center during Ramadan. It's this spiritual part that Sekic doesn't want to lose.

"There are thousands and thousands of Bosnians here, but not many come to the center," he says. "They've become completely Americanized. I want to keep in touch with my culture. That's why many of us come here."

When Sekic came to St. Louis at age 9, he says his family was so poor that it couldn't afford clothing for him.

"I'd wear the same clothes for three to five days and the children in school would make fun of me," he says. "But the more you learned about other students, the more you adjusted. I started learning English and started adapting and now I am more Americanized."

No Tension

In general school districts report no major tension between Bosnians and other groups, but Alderman Gregali insists that such friction is a natural outgrowth of race relations in St. Louis.

"There always has been tension between blacks and whites," he says. "Now you throw in a foreigner and it exacerbates the problem."

Among teachers intrigued by Sekic's story of being ridiculed for having no clothes was Dawn Thieman, the ELL coordinator in the Bayless District.

"Kids will be kids and can be unkind," she says and then points to Bayless' highly praised character education program that helps children build partnerships and learn to be nice to one another.

"We believe that program has made a difference. No one feels isolated, and integration just becomes a natural part of school culture."

Positive Immigrant Experiences

Bosnians are only one of many immigrant groups served by Bayless and other area school districts. Bayless has roughly 1,600 students, at least 40 percent of them are versatile in a language other than English. District officials acknowledge hearing of community complaints that special needs of immigrants are taking a teacher's time away from work with regular students.

Thieman says all concerns have been minimal over the years, coming from a few critics who don't realize the district has ELL teachers who step in to help kids with language problems.

She says the diversity in classrooms means "students have an opportunity to participate in a global community in their own school. The students feel this is a great experience to be exposed to multiple cultures and languages and have an opportunity to learn from other people."

The biggest challenge, Thieman says, has been to establish good communications and promote understanding. Bayless offers immigrant parents a course in English; it also offers community residents a course to help them understand the history and culture of countries, such as Bosnia. The district also tries to do an effective job in communicating with parents of immigrant children. At one time, the district used to rely on students to communicate with their parents on school issues -- until officials learned that one student had gone home and lied, telling the parents the district required each family to own a home computer.

"We're sure that student had a lot of explaining to do at home" once the parents found out the truth, she says. "We no longer communicate with parents through students."

Immigrants In St. Louis

The St. Louis School Board takes a different approach to accommodating some of its immigrant students and families. Superintendent Kelvin Adams worried that many of them were getting lost in the system, and he decided to set up classes populated exclusively by immigrant children rather than mixing them with the general student population.

Nahed Chapman, executive director of the district's English Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) program, says this approach will help students make the transition into regular classrooms.

"We help them reach a point where they can bring the two cultures together in peace, not to become Westernized or Americanized but to have a choice of picking, choosing or creating their own culture."

Refugees served by St. Louis include people from Nepal, Burma, Iraq, Vietnam, Bosnia, Somalia, Liberia, Burundi and Nigeria. About 143 are at the district's ESOL site at 3123 South Kingshighway; others are served in separate classes in other school buildings.

Chapman says one difference between the city school's program and some in St. Louis County is that the latter tend to serve more children of educated parents. "A lot of our kids come out of war and refugee camps. After they're with the (city) public school system for a couple of years, have settled down and their English is better, they move into the county. I regret to see them go, but I believe in the American dream of choice to live where they want to."

In addition to a teaching staff, the ESOL program includes an in-house translation team, family support team and student assistance team to help families cope and prepare K-9 students to move to regular classrooms within two years.

One of the big challenge, she says, is helping refugees overcome psychological problems.

"Something in the classroom can make them explode, and they may become completely out of control. Regardless of how we came, we have that first honeymoon stage when we are happy and delighted. Then comes the stage of a sense of loss of leaving our country and families, our food, our music."

Robert Joiner has carved a niche in providing informed reporting about a range of medical issues. He won a Dennis A. Hunt Journalism Award for the Beacon’s "Worlds Apart" series on health-care disparities. His journalism experience includes working at the St. Louis American and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where he was a beat reporter, wire editor, editorial writer, columnist, and member of the Washington bureau.