ESL school excels in variety

Hillcrest School sixth-graders, from left, Jay Xayasaeng, of Laos, Sebastian Joseph and Alex Mwithiga, of Kenya, work through transformational geometry Thursday at the school, 1045 Hilltop Drive. Many international students make up the student body.

Different nations, languages spoken

Hillcrest School is one of the most diverse locations in the city. Students from 27 foreign countries attend the elementary school; they speak 28 foreign languages.

Here are the countries represented, followed by the number of students:

Bolivia, 1; Bulgaria, 1; China, 11; Colombia, 2; Congo, 2; Costa Rica, 1; Czech Republic, 1; Egypt, 2; Ethiopia, 2; Guatemala, 1; India, 4; Iran, 3; Iraq, 1; Japan, 4; Jordan, 1; Kenya, 2; Mexico, 15; Myanmar, 4; Nigeria, 1; Puerto Rico, 1; Russia, 2; Saudi Arabia, 8; South Korea, 10; Sri Lanka, 1; Taiwan, 1; Uruguay, 1; Zimbabwe, 1.

Languages spoken:

Amharic, Arabic, Bulgarian, Burmese, Cantonese, Chinese, Farsi, French, Hindi, Igbo, Ilocano, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Kurdish, Laotian, Mandarin, Marathi, Navajo, Persian, Portuguese, Russian, Shona, Sinhalese, Spanish, Swahili/ Kiswahili, Telegu, Vietnamese.

When Shabina Kavimandan first entered Hillcrest School six years ago, she was immediately drawn to something near and dear to her heart: The Indian flag.

“The first thing I saw was the flag of my country, and a huge map of all the kids from around the world,” said Kavimandan, an English-as-a-Second-Language coach at Hillcrest, 1045 Hilltop Drive. “At that moment, my heart was sold to this country.”

It was a welcome sight for Kavimandan, who came to Hillcrest from Kansas State University. She entered perhaps the most diverse building in Lawrence, where today 28 countries and five continents are represented, and 28 languages, including English, are spoken. Of the roughly 450 students, about 300 speak a foreign language.

Welcome to Hillcrest

For years, Hillcrest was the only ESL elementary school in the Lawrence school district. Today there are four others, but it still trumps the others in diversity.

From Navajo to Nihong, Laotian to Igbo and everything in between, Hillcrest speaks to the world. Many students are children of Kansas University students and professors, said Principal Tammy Becker.

Teachers paint an idyllic picture of cross-cultural sharing and harmony that is almost hard to believe. But they are persistent in saying that at Hillcrest, conflict is minimal and learning is optimal.

“We’re at the forefront of things. We’ve got so much to learn every day,” said first-grade teacher Kim Walker.

At Hillcrest, teachers say, students find a place where assimilation is fostered by diversity, even when English is a challenge.

“The kids do not see differences. They see each other as individuals all coming together,” Becker said. “We recognize differences, but it doesn’t set us apart.”

Cultural awareness

At Hillcrest, Cinco de Mayo is just May 5. Black History Month is simply February. Ramadan is just another month.

“Every day is a celebration of cultures,” Kavimandan said.

Each student has the opportunity to share his or her culture one day a year. On Thursday, a Chinese student and his mother were showing students traditional Chinese trinkets that represent different personalities.

Kavimandan said students benefit by learning about one another, recognizing differences and not being afraid to learn about yourself.

“When they have the opportunity to share their culture, it gives them the opportunity to teach,” said Jessica Larsen, a sixth-grade ESL teacher.

They also learn to make adaptations.

Sixth-grade teacher Kendra Metz said a Muslim student felt left out last year during Ramadan, when the class had snack time as he fasted. The class elected to eliminate their snacks so he could remain included.

In turn, the student surprised his classmates later with a snack party.

Academic challenges

Hillcrest was one of three Lawrence elementary schools that did not meet the state’s adequate yearly progress, part of the No Child Left Behind Act. Metz said she’s heard complaints from people who say that the large number of English language learners are at fault for keeping scores below standards. But they don’t take into account the big picture, she said.

“Good teaching is good teaching. When we teach differently to teach those kids with language difficulties, it does not slow down the other children,” she said.

In fact, she argues, the cultural education they receive is an enrichment that can’t be graded. And sometimes, the students even become teachers.

Metz said she learned the Korean phrase for “hello” to greet parents. In showing students photos of an eroded riverbed, Metz learned that one Congolese student used to swim in such a river, giving the entire class a tangible way to learn.

‘We’re all a minority’

At the school’s entrance, several dozen flags line the hallway. In one classroom, clocks denoting the time in countries – like Ireland, Vietnam and Argentina – hang on the wall. As children banter in Chinese outside the school, this much is clear, according to Metz: “We’re all a minority here.

“Here, being different is the norm.”