Rose Sanreta had had a big day at Northview High School: a test in finance class, a quiz in English, reviewing World History for another test. But her last hour was all good, reviewing English vocabulary with Leigh Ann Hoffman, a teacher to English-language learners like her.
Tutoring from Hoffman has been crucial for Rose, who could speak no English when she arrived here from Pakistan nearly two years ago.
“She helps me a lot,” said Rose, a sophomore, in her family’s small apartment filled with the rich aroma of the dinner her mother was cooking. “Because of her, I can learn a lot of things.”
Mixson Simio, father to Rose and two other children, beamed at Hoffman, who would stay for the delicious, spicy meal. He said she has driven his children home when they were sick or texted him when they had a problem. She and her husband also gave the family a sofa.
“She’s not just a teacher,” Simio said warmly. “She’s my sister.”
Teaching English is not the only service provided by Hoffman, one of three staff members who work with Northview’s approximately 60 English-language learners. Many of them are refugees from war-torn countries or, like Simio’s family, seeking asylum from persecution in their homelands.
“Part of my job is, yes, teaching English, but also making families feel comfortable and welcome here,” said Hoffman, coordinator of the ELL program. Along with teacher Alex Dunn and paraprofessional Elda Zagumny, she helps students make the transition to a very different culture and a difficult language as their families seek to gain a foothold in America.
In her seven years in the program, she’s seen it grow from about 20 students to three times that many, including more students with very limited English skills. Increasingly, they’ve come not from settled homes in the area but fleeing from violence elsewhere.
“I feel scared for them, because they’re thrown right into English-only instruction with EL support,” Hoffman said. “It’s a big challenge for them.”
Refugee Influx Strains Resources
Like many Kent County school districts, Northview has seen an increase in ELL students along with an influx of refugees in recent years. About 900 refugees were expected to settle in West Michigan this fiscal year, although that could change depending on proposed federal policies. In fiscal year 2016, 858 refugees arrived, more than half of them from Democratic Republic of Congo and Burma, according to Bethany Christian Services.
Although not on the scale of districts like Grand Rapids and Kentwood, Northview has received its share of refugees from Somalia, Sudan and elsewhere. And like other districts, it has found its ELL teachers stretched to accommodate the new arrivals and students’ two dozen languages such as Punjabi, Russian and Dinka.
“With our resources we have to determine, who are our neediest students?” Hoffman said. “Even then sometimes it’s a struggle because we have seven buildings.”
Along with their cultural and academic challenges, some families also are worried about the more restrictive immigration and refugee policies of the Trump administration currently on hold in the courts, she said.
“It will impact some of our families and their loved ones,” she added. “I’ve even had some kids say they might be moving. It’s scary for a lot of kids.”
Not all are so worried, however. Mixson Simio said he loves President Trump, his temporary ban on travelers from six predominantly Muslim countries and greater restrictions on refugees. A Christian, his views are shaped by religious persecution he says his family experienced in Pakistan for his church ministry work. He said Muslim militants’ threats on his life and his family forced them to leave the country.
After fleeing to Dubai, his family came to Northview in the spring of 2015. He received authorization to work and is now seeking asylum status from the government. He is a driver for DHL Express and active in their church, Rockford Baptist. That congregation, Messiah Lutheran and Frontline Church helped his family settle in Northview.
“I want to stay here my whole life,” said Simio, who aims to pursue ministry here. “I like America. I pray for America.”
‘It’s a Really Good Country’
His children like America, too. They also like Northview Public Schools, thanks largely to the ELL program.
Rose Sanreta meets an hour a day with Hoffman to hone her English skills, grow her vocabulary and better understand her assignments. Her younger sister, Rose Salistina, a fifth-grader at Highlands Middle School, meets daily with Elda Zagumny and three times a week with Alex Dunn. Little brother Daim John, a third-grader at West Oakview, works on writing twice a week with Hoffman.
On a recent afternoon, he proudly showed a visitor a miniature car he had made in class that day. Rose Salistina was still glowing from a “beach day” her school had enjoyed.
“Today was fun,” she piped. “I like it, but sometimes when they have a lot of homework I just get mad at school.”
That’s not often. The younger Rose said she is happy with her grades and gets help from her teachers and other students when she needs it.
“The first day of school was very hard,” she admitted. “I don’t know how I got to learn English, but I did. It’s not really hard for me anymore.” In fact, she was reading books to help her reading team notch points, she said.
Her older sister also likes school, where she is a cheerleader and takes choir under Judy Pellerito (“She’s a sweetheart”). But she admits math is really tough, and that learning English was, too.
“It was so hard for me to get this stuff,” Rose Sanreta recalled, as her mother, Agnes Kanwal, served fried vegetable fritters called pakora. “The first day I was like, I don’t know how I’m going to deal with everything, because everything was in English.”
But then, turning to Hoffman, she added, “She helped me, she still helps me, and she will help me through this school year.”
She said she hopes her family will be granted asylum status so they can stay in the U.S. indefinitely, and she can further her education here.
“It’s a really good country,” she said. “You can do the things you would like to do.”