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Mobtown Beat

Social Studies

Groups Vie to Nurture Southeast's Melting Pot

By Jill Yesko | Posted 12/13/2000

What do refugees from Bosnia, Somalia, Cuba, and Iraq have in common with students from Highlandtown, Patterson Park, and Canton? By next fall, they could be sharing a classroom in Southeast Baltimore.

That's the notion behind the Southeast International School, which organizers say they hope to open in September as a "multiethnic, multicultural, multinational" educational facility.

"We could easily have 200 refugees enrolled right now," says the Rev. Neil Carrick, senior pastor at Chesapeake Good Shepherd Church in Canton and one of the school's prime movers. Carrick says Southeast International's student body would be a "50-50" mix of native-born kids, immigrants living in the community, and newly arrived refugees.

Among the school's aims is helping foreign-born students learn English and quickly assimilate into American culture. For native-born kids, it will provide an opportunity to learn firsthand about their classmates' cultural backgrounds, Carrick says. But the bottom-line goal will be the same for all students, he says: to improve academic performance and earn high scores on the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills, a national test administered to first- through eighth-grade students in Baltimore City.

"For the most part, refugees and immigrants want to give their children a good education. There are some public schools that aren't making the grade," says Thom Kolton, refugee liaison for the Patterson Park Community Development Corp. (PPCDC), a nonprofit firm that refurbishes and sells homes in Southeast Baltimore. "The perception by some refugees is that the public-school system isn't providing for the needs of their children."

While there is widespread agreement among educators and activists in the community about the need for such a school, there is growing disagreement over implementation. A teacher-led group recently split of from Carrick's organization and is working on a separate school proposal. Organizers say this facility, to be called the Patterson Park School, would not focus quite so heavily on foreign-born students as Southeast International.

"We sort of sat down and decided we all wanted the same thing . . . but we just felt [the Southeast International organizers] were more interested in a too-specific part of the community," says Matt Wernsdorfer, a social-studies teacher at Patterson High School and member of the Baltimore Teachers Network, a nonprofit organization of city teachers working for education reform.

Both schools seek to operate under the aegis of the New Schools Initiative, a city program to develop publicly funded but independently run schools--what are generally called "charter schools" in other jurisdictions--that have greater autonomy than traditional public schools in areas such as curriculum, discipline, and hiring teachers. There are currently five such "new schools" up and running in Baltimore. (The program does not cover several other charter-style and independently run public schools, including the three elementaries taken over earlier this year Edison Schools.)

Plans for an international school were hatched about five months ago when a group of clergy, teachers, and parents began meeting in Highlandtown to hammer out a proposal for a school that would offer services geared to the immigrant and refugee families that make up a fast-growing part of Southeast Baltimore's population.

"The international community is a fantastic resource. To expose children in the community to all different languages and cultures is great," Wernsdorfer says.

Organizers of both schools expect to submit proposals outlining curriculum and goals to the city school system on Dec. 15. The city school board is scheduled to hold hearings on various new-school proposals in January, board member Dorothy Siegel says. Schools officials have until the end of that month to come up with a short list of potential new schools, with a further review in April to determine which will get the green light to open next fall.

Putting foreign-born students in the same classrooms as U.S. natives is nothing new in Southeast, which is rapidly becoming Baltimore's melting pot. Public schools from Patterson Park to Greektown are already teaching students from dozens of countries. What is new is the idea of a school catering to the specialized needs of immigrant students--not just teaching them a new language but helping them assimilate into a new culture and, in some cases, overcome traumatic pasts.

"I don't know if any school in Baltimore has programs dealing with immigrants and refugee children," says Laura Weeldreyer, coordinator of the New Schools Initiative. Says state Department of Education spokesperson Linda Bazerjian, "We don't have a specific program similar to what this charter school is proposing."

Brian Richmond, a fifth-grade teacher at John Ruhrah Elementary School in Highlandtown, says the English as a Second Language (ESOL) programs provided by his school and others aren't always enough to help refugee and immigrant students. Smaller classes and greater teacher autonomy would likely make a charter-style school appealing to both parents and educators, says Richmond, who is pursuing a master's in education with a specialty in bilingual instruction.

Foreign-born students' needs can go far beyond language training. Many have been through major traumas in their native countries, such as living in refugee camps or having parents who were tortured. "You need to have a staff available that is trained to recognize symptoms of trauma," says Gary Hughes, executive director of the Foreign-born Information and Referral Network (FIRN), a Columbia-based advocacy for immigrants and refugees. Even for students with more stable backgrounds and English-language skills, he says, "changing cultures is not an easy thing to do."

The school board's Siegel would not comment specifically on the international-school efforts because organizers have not yet filed formal proposals, but she says the panel "wasn't opposed to the concept." Siegel says she is open to the idea but uncertain of its necessity. "I don't know why at this moment [the school's organizers] believe our current [public-school] programs are insufficient," she says.

Some in the school's target community agree with her. Standing in line at the Southeast Station Post Office on South Highland Avenue, where refugee families from the Middle East and Latin America send money orders and packages "home," a Peruvian immigrant says he is happy with the education his daughter and son are getting at neighborhood public schools. "I don't think they need a special school for these kids," says the man, who declined to give his name. Focusing on programs for new arrivals could detract from the overall quality of education, he says.

But Dana Mulahasanovic, a refugee from Bosnia who works with other new arrivals as a case worker for the Highlandtown-based International Rescue Committee, says she would favor a school with immigrant-specific programming and lower pupil-to-teacher ratios. Mulahasanovic, who arrived in the United States last year, says she took her daughter out of Highlandtown Middle School and enrolled her in a parochial school because she feared for the girl's safety.

"I didn't like the environment in that school," Mulahasanovic says. "I think refugees need some counseling in the schools whether they're coming from South Africa or Bosnia. . . . If the International School will increase opportunities for learning, I support it."

Proponents say the school will increase opportunities for learning by its very nature, encouraging native-born students to think globally while learning locally.

"By creating an international school, you can create a school where children can learn about different cultures without even leaving Southeast Baltimore," PPCDC's Kolton says. "Bad schools," he adds, "aren't keeping anyone in Baltimore City."

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