Kree Dee – By Wes Wagner ’14
“Gracias!” “Good job” “Da blu!” “Da bwi” These are a few of the different farewells I say every day after tutoring the 5th graders in my classroom at Nora Elementary’s After School Achievers program (ASA). There are 4 languages commonly used in the community at 91st and College, the community I have grown to love the past two years. English is one of them, of course, but native English-speaking students are rare in the classrooms at Nora. In fact, almost all of them are categorized as English as a Second Language(ESL) students. About half of the students are Hispanic, mostly the children of immigrants from Mexico. I’m generally familiar with these students’ situations, having have grown up in an increasingly Hispanic country. The other half of students, I have come to learn, are Burmese. Burmese? In Indianapolis? I had no idea such a group existed in my community. Naturally my curiosity piqued, and I began asking dozens of questions that I’m sure you might be curious about as well—why did these people come here? How do they adjust to the culture? How do the families get by?
Through talking with members of the community at Nora Elementary and my own research, I have begun to learn about the Burmese people. The “Burmese” actually belong to two ethnic minority groups from Burma—the Karen and Karenni people. Burma—or Myanmar if you ask the currently ruling military regime—has had an unstable political situation for a few decades. Consequently, these ethnic minorities have been forced out of their homeland or have had to endure horrible treatment ranging from being forced into the army as children to being a slave in one of the regime’s labor camps. The Burmese we have in our community are lucky—they have come to the USA from camps along the border between Burma and Thailand. They come here with refugee status with minor education and little or no knowledge of the English language. Upon arrival in Indianapolis, a few organizations help the families adapt to the culture shift and their children are enrolled in Washington Township schools such as Springmill, Greenbriar, or Nora Elementary.
The adult refugees have little options for jobs because of their education and English skills. I’ve heard that some work in a large factory or bakery and that some are bussed an hour or so away to a chicken slaughterhouse. The adults try to learn English at a local church, but the saying “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” often times proves true when they try to learn a foreign tongue that they’ve never had exposure to. Fortunately, their children have a different situation being raised in the United States. Of course, these children still have their own issues to overcome—coming from low-income families without English backgrounds doesn’t necessarily set them up for success when they first enter the school system. However, the opportunity to have a good education is one of the most powerful driving factors for social change, without a doubt. Naturally, in order for these people to have a better life here in America they need to be able to successfully utilize the public school system in order to achieve it. With a good education, a multitude of other opportunities become available and the American Dream can become a realistic goal for all of them. To support this cause, Washington Township instituted the After School Achievers program ten years ago to help remediate struggling students and to help them achieve a worthwhile education.
At Nora’s ASA program, Monday through Thursday second through fifth grade students flock out of the doors at the school and head to the adjacent church , where rooms in the church have been graciously lent to the school ever since the ASA program’s beginnings. A few other students are dropped off in buses from Spring Mill Elementary and Greenbriar, bringing the total number of students served to around 120 or 130. The students come based on recommendations from their teachers and if their grades show some type of struggling. At the program, teachers, volunteers, and tutors help the students with their homework and offer supplemental lessons in a more personalized format that the school environment doesn’t offer. Teachers just don’t have enough time to help each student, especially the students struggling with English. However, at ASA, the teachers and staff are present to fill the void in their education gap as well as improve their English.
In addition to a supplemental education, the ASA program is vital in other ways to this community. The ASA program offers a safe space to the students from when school ends till about 5:30—preventing the students from getting into trouble and falling into the wrong crowd. Gangs have come and gone in the past, but with the support of Nora Elementary’s ASA program and its director, Jake Skillman, they haven’t been around in a while. Although the program’s purpose isn’t child care, it functions as that role as well, allowing parents to work the two or three jobs they have.
It is obvious that his program is crucial to this community, but unfortunately with our system of rating students’ and schools’ performances, this is not the case to the Federal and State governments. Nora elementary has a “D” state ranking. Students in the After School Achievers program are not on grade level. On paper, the students, teachers, and staff are failures—the students don’t score high on ISTEP+ and the multitude of other tests shoved in front of them. However, I have personally witnessed so many students succeed and grow in the program who would have otherwise fallen through the cracks without the extra help. I’ve seen students such as Shah Reh move from being two or three years below his grade level to being near grade level at the end of the year. I will always remember when a 10 year old in my classroom, Su Reh, who had just arrived a few months earlier without knowing a word of English, first began to string a few words together when reading out loud. I saw Htoo Da So begin to understand the concept of multiplication. These are some of the stories that mirror countless others that can’t be restricted to statistics and test scores.
Unfortunately, due to our current educational system lacking the ability to realize this growth and success, Nora’s ASA program will cease to exist this upcoming year, along with all of the other After School Achievers programs throughout Washington Township that were funded by the 21st Century Scholars grant. What will become of the students, the family, and the refugee and Hispanic community at Nora? The students will no longer receive the extra help. The students will no longer have a safe place after school. The students will no longer be able to look forward to their extra snack. The students will fall behind and slip into the cracks. The negative impacts on this community, on our community, would be very unfortunate—poverty, low education, limited opportunities, and free time adds up to be anything but promising.
For the families, there is no realistic alternative. Yes, there are other options are available, but none that are as cheap and offer academic remediation. The first alternative is AYS care (which doesn’t include homework help or academic remediation) which costs around $75 a week for each student instead of the $25 per semester for each student in ASA. We must advocate for educational reform and for standards that allow programs like ASA to be sustained, helping these struggling families and bringing justice to all of those in this community. It’s the responsibility of not only us as members of a Jesuit community who are committed to promoting justice, but also to anybody who advocates for equality and fights injustice.
Although this program will end in a few short weeks, I hope that those who I have interacted with have benefited from their time at ASA. All of those who I have come to know will never leave my heart. I have fallen in love with the Nora community these last two years—fellow volunteers, teachers, staff, the Hispanic and Burmese families, and of course all of the students. I have a multitude of good memories from this program, but I’d like to leave you with one in particular that deeply touched me.
After ASA one day, when the parents were picking up their kids, a mother came up to me with her son, Kree Dee. Kree Dee, who is a 5th grader in my classroom, and his mother, who doesn’t know any English, live by themselves across the street in the apartments at 91st and College. Kree Dee’s mother pulls a gift out of her bag and hands it to me. I ask Kree Dee what this was and all he said was “for you.” Both Kree Dee and his mother were both a bit bashful as I opened it. Underneath the wrapping paper I found a handmade ceremonial “costume.” It had the Karen flag stitched on one side and ceremonial drums on the other. It must have taken her hours to make it. Jake Skillman, the director at Nora, came and told me that Kree Dee and his mother wanted to welcome me into the Karen family. I will forever be touched by this action—a gift from someone who has almost nothing to give. It was one of the most generous things someone has ever done for me.
Class of 2014