Kentwood — Endeavor Elementary School fourth-grader Issabelle Saldivar took time outside of school to learn how to greet her new classmate, Benyamen Amiri, in Farsi.
“Hi, my name is Issabelle,” she said in Benyamen’s native tongue. He recently arrived in Michigan from Afghanistan. “I felt like he would be a little lonely if he didn’t have anyone to talk to,” she said later.
Fourth-grader Zak Lateef is another new friend of Benyamen’s, and a fellow English learner. He had the privilege of showing Benyamen around school.
“I showed him what he can do and places where he can do what he wants,” said Zak, who speaks Arabic at home.
What does Benyamen think of his new school and friends? “Very nice.”
As Benyamen spoke, demonstrating that he had already picked up some English and understood basic questions, Sanela Sprecic, director of the EL program at Kentwood Public Schools looked delighted.
“He is learning fast. I’m impressed,” Sprecic said. “Judging how he is learning, he is definitely on a good path to reach proficiency.”
High Achievement for English Learners
When it comes to learning English, Benyamen is in a great place, both due to the services and the diverse nature of Kentwood Public Schools, educators say.
Endeavor was recently selected by the Michigan Department of Education for a special recognition for its English learner student achievement in the category of “Excellence in Serving Special Populations of Students — English Learners.” It is the only school in the state selected and will be recognized at a national conference in February in New Orleans.
The school was recognized for students’ growth and proficiency in WIDA, an assessment for English learners, and in M-STEP scores for English-language students. Kentwood’s Glenwood and Discovery elementary schools are also among top schools for their achievement in those areas.
The fact that Benyamin is the school’s first Farsi-speaking student is remarkable because dozens of languages are spoken in the district, which is the most diverse in Michigan. Endeavor is the second most diverse elementary school in Michigan, and its student population includes 232 English learners in Young Fives through fifth grade, 39.4 percent of students.
To meet their needs, one full- and one part-time teacher and an interventionist offer EL instruction to students for a half hour to an hour each day including an EL lesson and 20 minutes on Imagine Learning, a platform developed for English language and literature instruction. “We really focus on reading, speaking and writing,” said EL teacher Kelly Hughes.
When the students are not in EL class, they are in general education classrooms, and Sprecic and Hughes explained that is a key part to success. EL instruction practices are woven into general ed teaching as well, and students are receiving the best of both worlds. Students are “pre taught” content in EL so they are ready for what they learn in class with their non-EL peers. General ed teachers are also very good at differentiating instruction for EL students.
“It takes a village to do these kinds of things,” Sprecic said.
The district formerly used a Newcomer Center model, in which new immigrants who needed elementary EL service were in self-contained classrooms for the first year of school. The program was at Meadowlawn Elementary, where all Newcomers attended before moving into general education in their home schools. One of Sprecic’s tasks when she began as director of the EL program was to restructure elementary services.
“The research has proven that beginning with full immersion right on is the much better way for these kids to become proficient in English,” Sprecic said. “Every building is a Newcomer Center now, which is an opportunity for everyone.”
‘There’s A Reason They Are Coming Here’
There’s much more to the story than data or test scores. Kentwood Public Schools’ success is largely due to relationships, Bea said.
“We wouldn’t get to any of it if the kids didn’t feel loved and safe and welcomed and at home,” he said.
The district has opened its arms to become a destination district for immigrants. In the classrooms, students find many others also learning English and who come from faraway lands.
“There’s a reason why they are coming here,” said Endeavor Principal Mark Bea said. “They know that they are our family. It’s not that they are joining our family; they are our family. What’s so neat about that is they feel welcome because they are welcome.”
Sprecic said there is an “excellence piece” to the reason immigrant families love the district as well.
“These families coming from overseas come here for better opportunities in life,” said Spreic, who immigrated to Kentwood from Bosnia in the 1990s and settled in Kentwood with her family. “They do know that Kentwood will get them there… They bring in their families and friends. They know that there are high expectations.”