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Butterflies, Borrowing Books Part of New Life

Parkview Elementary first- and second-graders Erik and Isaac Alfaro spotted monarch caterpillars on milkweed plants at Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park, in Grand Rapids Township.

“How many are there?” asked Lisa DeMaagd, Wyoming Public Schools English Language-Learner coordinator. “Cuatro!” shouted Erik, counting to four in Spanish. Then he saw another, adding up to “cinco” caterpillars.

Erika Garcia looks for butterflies with her sons

The brothers and their mother, Erika Garcia, soon entered the Butterflies are Blooming exhibit, where hundreds of colorful butterflies fluttered by in the Lena Meijer Tropical Conservatory. It was a highlight of their visit to the 158-acre botanical garden and outdoor sculpture park.

Eric, Isaac and their 4-year-old brother, Israel, spotted butterflies amid the leaves and flowers. Their smiles spread wide as they chatted excitedly in Spanish, spying butterflies landing on fresh fruit.

The family is taking part in the district’s annual community resource workshops, during which immigrant district students and their families are invited on community outings.

As of fall, 858 students at Wyoming Public Schools — just below 20 percent of the district’s population — are ELL students from countries including Puerto Rico, Mexico, Honduras, Dominican Republic, Nepal, Guatemala and Rwanda. Sixty-one students, including 11 exchange students, qualified for the workshops this year as students not born in the U.S. and living here for fewer than three years.

Welcome to Grand Rapids

The community resources program, which the district has hosted for more than 10 years, is funded by a sub-grant of Title III federal funding for immigrant education allocated by Kent ISD to meet the needs of new families and help them get accustomed to U.S. culture.

“We focus very much on community and opportunities for experience,” DeMaagd said.

Erik Alfaro counts cinco -- five -- caterpillars
Erik Alfaro counts cinco — five — caterpillars

The group, which varies each year from 10 to 40 participants, focuses on things they need to know for life in the U.S., from information about public safety to leaving tips at a restaurant. Wyoming Intermediate School counselor Christine Karas, who helps lead the program, said families find joy in new experiences and learn things Americans take for granted or don’t often think to explain.

“We teach them what a fire hydrant is, how to walk across the street, why Americans throw pennies in water, how to call 911,” Karas said. “It’s a lot of  basic things.”

They tour the Wyoming Branch of Kent District Library and learn how to find books and check them out, as well as about free resources and programs for card holders. They visit to the Wyoming Police Department and head downtown to the Grand Valley State University campus, the Downtown Market, Rosa Parks Circle and Van Andel Arena.

In past years, depending on funding, the program has included a summer session as well, allowing more opportunities like kite-flying, Lake Michigan trips, cookouts, dune rides, zoos and dairy farm tours.

The memories created spill over into the school day, DeMaagd said.

“Teachers have shared with me that tons of the students’ writing pieces have included elements from our program,” she said. “They are asked to write about an experience and all of the sudden they have something more fun to write about than ‘I sat on my couch and played video games.’”

Mom Erika Garcia said she values the opportunities the program provides. The family moved from Mexico six months ago.

“It’s great for the kids to learn new things in the community and to learn about the things we have in the United States,” she said in Spanish, translated by DeMaagd.

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Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers and On-the-Town Magazine. She has been covering the many exciting facets of K-12 public education for School News Network since 2013. Read Erin's full bio or email Erin.

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