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Immigrants Learn Year-round in Kansas City Charter School


The school year is ending for most students around the United States, where classes usually run from September through May. But at the , learning takes place year round. The school is an alternative public facility for children from kindergarten through 6th grade, and the intensive instruction they receive is one of many ways the school's parent organization, Della Lamb Community Services, aids low-income residents in Kansas City.

Almost 70% of the school's students come from immigrant and refugee families. Walk into a classroom and you'll see children dressed in everything from slacks and T-shirts to tribal African clothing. Ask them where they are from and they'll give answers that range from Sudan to Vietnam to the Midwestern state of Iowa.

But for all the students, year round school is a path to achievement for both themselves and their parents. "We are in school 230 days of the year, July through June, with 4 weeks off during the year," explains Judy Akers, the director of Della Lamb Community Services. "We designed the school year that way because we know so many parents are moving from welfare into the workforce. They've got to have child care throughout the summer, and we knew our children needed the additional academic support."

Della Lamb Community Services provides assistance to almost 2,000 families a day, offering everything from job skills training to emergency aid for rent, groceries and other needs. The center began in 1897 as a United Methodist Mission, aimed at providing childcare for poor working mothers.

Since then, says Judy Akers, its focus has changed with the needs of the times. "When I came 26 years ago, our client base was almost exclusively Italian- Caucasian elderly and African American young people and families," Ms. Akers recalls. "Today the client base is about 30% African American, and it's about 60% refugees, from 10 or 12 different countries. And the one thing everyone has in common is that they're at our doors because they don't have enough money to make ends meet."

In recent years Kansas City has experienced an influx of Sudanese, Somali and Bantu refugees. Somali native Mohamed Nur is director of Refugee Services at Della Lamb. He says staffers devised special programs to help the newcomers adjust to an unfamiliar way of life. "The food can be challenging for the refugees, and dressing for appropriate weather," explains Mr. Nur. "Sometimes they don't understand that cold really means cold and they wear sandals. Even going to the post office is among the lessons they learn."

Learning English is also a huge challenge, says Della Lamb director Judy Akers. "Some folks are literally learning to hold a pencil, because their educational experience in their home cultures included hearing tribal elders tell the stories of prior generations," she says. "And so we're not only teaching English skills, but teaching them to read for the first time in their lives. To give you an example, a non-reading Somali will start with us and it may be 1 ½ or 2 years before they are reading at high 1st grade level."

Della Lamb English teacher Teresa Wortman says a big challenge in her work is teaching the adult learners how to be students. "Now they're showing great classroom behavior," she says, as her students go through their morning language drills. "Before they would chat and pick up their pencils and write in class."

Della Lamb has a similar English language program for adults and school age children, with a heavy emphasis on phonics. Frequent testing is followed up by remedial work for students who are falling behind. Children begin learning to read in kindergarten, a year earlier than in most traditional schools in the United States. Judy Akers says they are able to read at a high 1st grade level or better by the end of kindergarten.

The school is also helping older students -- 4th, 5th and 6th graders -- make up for lost time. "Ninety percent of those kids transfer in from the district as non readers, says Ms. Akers, "and within 12 to 18 months we have those kids reading either at grade level or at one year below."

In 2001, Della Lamb School was singled out by U.S. Education Secretary Rod Paige as a school where education was succeeding against all odds. He chose it as one of 8 sites to announce the Bush Administration's major education initiative "No Child Left Behind."

Official praise for the Della Lamb Charter School is echoed by the enthusiasm of its students. Fourth grader Hani Mohamed, from Somalia, says she likes going to school year round. "I feel happy because I like to learn something in school and do my work," she explains. Another 4th grader, Callata Thach, whose family is Philippino and Vietnamese, says it's fun being in a class with students from around the world. "You can meet lots of friends," says Callata, "and you can learn more about other cultures because there are many different people."

Judy Akers believes Kansas City has become a popular destination for immigrants and refugees partly because of the extensive services it provides. People from other countries can arrive in the city on a Tuesday, she says, and have housing and other basic needs met by the end of the week. Della Lamb Community Services aims to make sure the city's newest arrivals also get the education they need to succeed in the years that follow.