Schools adjust to serve the area’s multicultural society

Transitioning to a new language, country and culture can be extremely disruptive — particularly for children who are just beginning the process of learning to understand themselves and their heritage.

To address the growing numbers of students from non-English-speaking households, the Asheville City and Buncombe County schools are each gradually developing a curriculum that gives students from all backgrounds a chance to explore what makes each tradition unique, fostering cross-cultural dialogue and preparing students to be productive members of today’s increasingly global society.

Polyglot learning

In the past few years, the number of students in the county schools whose first language isn’t English has ballooned. Hispanic students alone now account for almost 16 percent of the county system’s total enrollment (3,870 out of 24,527), and more than 71 languages are spoken in its 43 schools. To meet these students’ needs, the county schools are expanding their curriculum, which begins with a home-language survey for new students, says Geneva Neeriemer, the system’s interim director of federal programs.

Children needing additional language help are connected with a teacher of English as a second language. Those teachers, Neeriemer continues, “provide English support, helping them learn not only conversational but academic language.”

Creating a welcoming environment, however, takes more than teaching language skills, says the county’s student services director, David Thompson.

Last year, the county schools began implementing a social and emotional learning curriculum for all students to teach them “how to have conversations with each other, how to problem-solve and do conflict resolution [and] how to recognize and accept differences.” The current program covers kindergarten through fifth grade, but the district plans to expand it through eighth grade in the 2016-17 school year.

Cultural exchange

In the Asheville City Schools, 8 percent of the system’s 4,400 students are Hispanic, says Charlie Glazener, the director of communications. There are also sizable populations of Asian students and Pacific Islanders.

Schools across the city are implementing personalized digital evaluation methods that factor in the particulars of each student’s background and educational history while also emphasizing open dialogue among parents, students and teachers. “We’re the only district in all of WNC that offers Spanish in all our elementary schools on a regular basis,” says Glazener.

At the high school level, Spanish, Chinese, French and Latin are offered. “Students learn about different languages while acquiring better study skills and absorbing more comprehensive knowledge of English grammar,” Glazener explains. “It’s not just the language exchange; there’s a whole lot of cultural exchange.”

Helping hands

Outside organizations also play a role. MANOS, an affiliate of Children First/Communities In Schools, serves Latino students in both the city and county systems, offering help with homework, college preparation programs and a stress-free environment where students can relax.

“In my world, the magic words are ‘information, information, information,’” says Norma Brown, the nonprofit’s Latino outreach coordinator. “Many families — not just Latinas — don’t have access to, or information about, available resources.”

In response to the growing numbers of local Spanish-speaking students, her organization has placed student support specialists in several schools, including Johnston and Emma elementaries and Eblen Intermediate.

“We know that for a child to be successful at school,” Brown says, “issues at home have to be addressed first, such as hunger, health care, housing and more.”

MANOS (which stands for Mentoring and Nurturing Our Students, and is also the Spanish word for “hands”) pairs Latino youths in grades eight to 12 with Warren Wilson College students who serve as academic and social mentors. Every Monday, 22 youths “participate full of hope, knowing that this is their space where they can always be themselves and talk to a mentor,” Brown reports.

Biliterate and bilingual

In 2011, the Splash language immersion program was introduced at the county’s Glen Arden Elementary. Developed by VIF International Education, the Splash curriculum offers classroom instruction in Spanish as well as English. “The idea is to immerse them in a second language in the curriculum area, so when they leave, they’re biliterate and bilingual,” says Cheri Boone, the system’s global education coordinator.

Similar programs at Oakley, W.D. Williams and Avery’s Creek elementary schools now offer an expanded two-way immersion curriculum that helps immigrant students learn English while they assist native English speakers who are studying the immigrant’s language and culture.

At the secondary level, students in the county schools can currently choose from among five language programs: Spanish, French, German, Chinese and Latin. In addition, the school system is developing a global education website, Boone reports, where students, teachers and parents can stay up-to-date on the various initiatives underway.

Community and competition

Several city schools also offer cultural immersion programs. Last year, Hall Fletcher Elementary launched its Common Ground ESL program for immigrant families, a partnership involving A-B Tech, students, parents and volunteers. At Ira B. Jones Elementary, the Global Scholars program incorporates service-learning opportunities into language classes, environmental studies and multicultural offerings. And, at Isaac Dickson Elementary, the FLEX curriculum offers Spanish classes to develop awareness and appreciation of a foreign culture.

“It’s kind of a worn-out phrase, but our young people in this community might be competing with kids in India, China and other countries for jobs in the future,” says Glazener. “The more young people are exposed to culture and other languages, the better they’re going to fare in the global economy.”

A top-down model

Efforts to expand multicultural offerings aren’t focused solely on students. The Global Educator Digital Badge, a statewide program implemented by the state Department of Public Instruction, offers faculty, administrators and staff an opportunity to increase their ability to facilitate a cross-cultural curriculum.

“It’s helping them look at the standards they’re held accountable to and improve their instructional practice as well as student learning and being a globally competent citizen,” Boone explains. Seventeen teachers in the Buncombe County Schools are enrolled in the Global Educator program, and school officials hope to involve more in the coming years.

Administrators are also encouraging parents from other cultures to participate in classroom activities and dialogue with school officials from the get-go. Such communication, Thompson says, helps administrators understand the differences between foreign and American educational systems and evaluate a student’s prior academic work in their homeland.

Brown agrees, adding that parents’ involvement in the curriculum can help alleviate the stress for immigrant students who serve as a bridge between two worlds. “Many of our youth have the opportunity to learn English before their parents,” she notes. Making third-party interpreters available spares the children from having to be “cultural brokers at a very young age.”

Think globally, act locally

Officials in both systems hope the initiatives currently being offered will coalesce into a comprehensive K-12 program that prepares students for postsecondary education or to enter the workforce with a sense of global awareness and bilingual competency.

“No pun intended, but it’s taking a global look at what we’re doing,” says Boone. “It’s not just language acquisition — it’s understanding the culture as well. The two go hand in hand.

“Language barriers are a tremendous obstacle, but poverty and trauma are still the root cause of many of these challenges,” Brown adds. Effective multicultural programs, she continues, provide a window into “the complex reality that many students and their families face.”

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About Max Hunt
Max Hunt grew up in South (New) Jersey and graduated from Warren Wilson College in 2011. History nerd; art geek; connoisseur of swimming holes, hot peppers, and plaid clothing. Follow me @J_MaxHunt

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