Students at McShan Elementary School come from some of the world’s most tormented spots — Iraq, Bhutan, Somalia and Congo, to name a few.
They fled with their families from civil war, famine or persecution. Now, they’re refugees resettled in Dallas. With help from an army of volunteers, McShan students are tackling their next challenge: the English language.
For an hour or more each week, 125 grown-ups tutor an equal number of refugee students, many of whom had little or no formal schooling before coming to the United States.
“They have a long, very steep mountain to climb,” said Dalene Buhl, who founded the volunteer program, called Reading Homeroom, at McShan two years ago. The kids may come from different countries and speak different languages, but the goal is the same: get them reading on grade level.
District officials say the program shows what kids and schools can achieve when their community pitches in.
Dallas ISD enrolls about 1,200 refugee students, most of whom live in the Vickery Meadow area. More than 250 of those students attend McShan, a red-brick school tucked among tired apartment buildings near Texas Health Presbyterian Dallas hospital.
These children arrive at McShan throughout the school year. Together they speak about 20 languages and dialects, including Arabic, Burmese, Nepali, Swahili, Tibetan and Urdu.
On a recent Thursday, kids and grown-ups worked in pairs at desks.
Halima Hassan, a first-grader from Somalia, poised a chubby blue marker in her hand as volunteer Gerald Fogerty, a retired family doctor, dictated a sentence:
“Mom had a top on a big pot.”
Like an Olympic runner who hears the starting gun, Halima took off. She wrote on a small dry erase board and raised it in triumph.
“That’s a whole sentence,” Fogerty said. “You did it by yourself, you know that?”
The 7-year-old in the tiger print hijab and hot pink Mary Janes smiled and erased the board, ready for the next sentence.
Halima and her family lived in a refugee camp in Uganda before coming to Dallas, according to a family friend. Fogerty said when he first met Halima in September, she didn’t smile or look his way. She barely talked.
But Fogerty kept coming each week to help Halima conquer words like fog and romp and mint and snip.
Finally, in December, a breakthrough.
Halima drew a picture of a nut. Fogerty joked, “You’re a nut.”
Halima shot back: “No, you’re a nut.”
She didn’t just converse with Fogerty. She showed that she got the joke.
And now, Fogerty said, Halima runs toward him when they see each other. She talks about her four older brothers, including Musa, a McShan third-grader.
McShan’s principal, Dayanna Kelly, said she’s grateful for the volunteers. By working with kids individually, they supplement the work teachers do in the classroom, after school, on Saturdays and even over spring break, she said.
“We truly have created a village to support our students,” Kelly said. “It’s a beautiful thing when we’re able to see the kids grow.”
Grow a lot, it turns out. Out of 148 elementary schools, McShan ranked fifth last year in academic growth, based on test scores. That means McShan’s students are showing greater progress than most of their Dallas ISD peers.
Buhl, a retired AT&T executive, is convinced the McShans of the world would be better off if people stopped complaining about public education and started pitching in.
“They would understand this is a hard job,” she said. Thinking of her 40 years in the corporate world, Buhl said, “This is far more challenging than a number of deals that I’ve done.”
Buhl first got involved at McShan in 2010, after reading in a church bulletin that the school needed tutors to work with third-graders. She and a friend launched a summer program for kids in the neighborhood, so they could get phonics and reading along with fresh air and playtime.
Last year, Buhl started the Reading Homeroom program at McShan with enough tutors to help 80 students in second through fifth grade.
This year, it serves 125 students in first through fifth grades, including 90 who’ve been in the U.S. less than a year.
McShan also gets extra help — such as translators, interpreters and special teacher training — through a Dallas ISD refugee services grant. The total amount, about $150,000 for the whole district, used to be provided by the federal government, through the Texas Health and Human Services Commission.
But this fall, Texas withdrew from the federal program after Gov. Greg Abbott said it poses a safety threat. Now, Dallas ISD provides that refugee program money from its own budget.
Dan Micciche, Dallas ISD’s board president, said McShan’s reading program shows that communities can make a difference in local public schools, especially those with disadvantaged kids.
“The volunteers at McShan are wonderful examples to us all,” Micciche said. Successes like those in Vickery Meadow inspired Micciche to propose that each DISD elementary school have a mentoring or tutoring program. The board approved the idea in 2013, and now about 90 elementary schools have such programs, Micciche said.
Buhl said McShan is always looking for more volunteers. But, she said, don’t forget about all those other schools in need too.
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