Like many schools in East Allen County, Southwick Elementary is undergoing construction work and not just on the outside. Inside the school, Burmese families like Oh Bi and her six year old daughter Thwa are learning to construct their lives away from Myanmar. “We came here because of education,” said Bi. “It is the most important thing. Where we lived, they had no education, no good schools.”
Southwick Principal Diamond Robinson said her school is one of three where the Burmese make up about half of the student population. “Southwick and Prince Chapman and Paul Harding Junior High have a lot of Burmese,” said Robinson. “We’re all at about 50-percent. The challenge is they’re not fluent in English when they come here. Southwick services students pre-K through second grade and a lot of times we’re starting right from their English name to letters, item identification number identification.
To help the Burmese learn, Diamond said the staff at Southwick has learned to think outside of the box when it comes to providing instruction for both students and their families. “We try to host events to make sure that when we’re communicating with them that they’re always invited. We also always send a Burmese school messenger. Teachers who send newsletters also send Burmese translated documents as well. We’re fortunate to have five EL teachers that are full time here.”
EL stands for English as a second language. Emily Johnson is one of Southwick’s five EL teachers.
“We use a program right now called Grapeseed,” said Johnson. “The kids are learning English through songs, poems, chants and that’s a huge thing that we’ve implemented in the last couple of years for all of our EL learners.”
“We do stations and write a lot,” said Thwa. “I like to paint the best.” “They have to take state assessments like other students,” said Robinson. “That can be a challenge because it can prevent us from meeting state standards. You might not see that we’re proficient but we’re showing so much growth so that’s what we try to focus on the good things that are happening.”
The school also provides interpreters for students and their families. “Our district provides something called Families Learning Together where parents are learning the language,” Robinson said.
The East Allen County Schools district has the largest number of Burmese students in Allen County. There are approximately 10,000 students in the district. Burmese students make up about 1,120 of those students.
Principal Robinson said the Burmese culture has provided more diversity in the district and has given educators, staff and students the opportunity to learn about another culture.