Kimberly Montini is a teacher in the Wynadotte District in Kansas City, Kansas. She met with TSOS and discussed her experience working with an inner-city population that includes refugees.
TSOS: How did you decide to become a teacher in a school district with predominantly low-income families and a high number of refugees, asylum seekers, and migrant workers?
I saw a need and I had an understanding that I could make a difference, that I didn't have to just look at it and accept it. I had the power to change things. When I started off, it was just little things here and there.
For example, I was across the hall from these little sweet kindergarten twins, and soon realized that they had one coat that they shared between them every other day. And I was like, this is ridiculous. Children should not have to share a coat. I thought, we can have a coat drive. We can collect coats. Then I had this experience where the children who were newer to the country got pulled out of class and were given hats, and gloves, and scarves. And then they were put back into the classroom. And the other children just looked at them what this look, like, “I don't know why you got that but I don't have a hat or gloves. Or a scarf either.” So this idea of selecting particular populations to receive over other populations in the building just really gave me a sour taste in my mouth. When people approach me and say, “Hey, is there something we can do for children in your building?" I always say, "You have make sure we do it for everyone, or we can do it for no one.”
So we as a staff we were like, “We can get clothes, we can go to thrift stores, we can start getting clothing for children, and we can make a difference. We can make this change."
We also have children come to us all the time, straight from refugee camps, and some of them had never even seen a toilet. So as an educator who never experienced poverty, it's a completely different expectation of what life should bring you. In the United States, even in poverty, you have the expectation that you will get out of that [poverty] and life will get better. But [these families] came with other experiences, and as educators we soon realized that we had to help meet basic needs before we could academically educate. Until basic needs are met, no learning was going to happen. If children aren't fed and I don't mean just fed, I mean fed some healthy, nutritious meals. Or if they are given security to know that enforcement's not going to come in the middle of the night and take their parents. When you start to see that they have a home, they have clothing, they have food, and basic human rights, then they can start integrating into a classroom for learning.
The children don't really care about “magic e” when they're worried about their food. You know, they're not worried about vowel teams, they're not worried about understanding basic concepts or the complexity of our language when they don't have basic needs met and we don't even understand what those needs are.
TSOS: How long does it take for kids to integrate into a classroom?
For those who had a really strong system and whose parents were educated, it could be a matter of a few months, and they could be having dialogue. But you know, they would go through this period of silence, because they don't speak the language. They're trying to listen and they're trying to learn and we were speaking only English.
And there would come a point in the day when we could tell some of the kids were so done. At that point, they’re on overload, so we would then put something on, or put them on an iPad, on a computer in their native language. In those moments, I didn't understand how much they missed their own culture in their own language. I was thinking, “Oh, you're here, you're in the land of opportunity. Let me teach you.” But I'll never forget one day we were in the library and we had a rug there, and on the rug all the way around on the border, were people from all over the world. And, we had a little guy who was always active. He was amazing at playing soccer because that's what he did in his refugee camps all day long. So recess was his area to shine because he was very physical, right? And, some of the children didn't like it and and since he didn't use his language very well he would push all the time and be so physical. On the playground he was this amazing athlete and so I just always just encouraged him to just, "go be you.” Like, this is your moment. The other kids would be like,” Look at him.” I'm like, “exactly.” So he would push kids and he would be angry and he would holler, but that day we were in the library and there's this rug and he was just staring at it. And he was looking at all of the people. And I'm just gonna be honest with you. I was just grateful that he wasn't running around. But he's looking and looking, and then he found someone that represented his culture and he bent down and he kissed them.
I just thought, this little guy is homesick. I need to allow him to grieve because, while I feel like he's left for a better life, that was the life he knew and loved.
TSOS: What it is like for the kids to have so many different cultures in one class?
The benefit of having cultural diversity is this: when children are exposed to it, it becomes normal and natural, and judgment is completely removed. As they're exposed to it in young years, they ask about it, they talk about it, they explain it to each other, and they're not afraid. They no longer see it as a differences and as they mature and grow older they see these difference as normal and enriching.
Sometimes the kids would be gone for a long time for religious holidays. Sometimes they would come back and their hands would come back henna-ed after they had been at a religious event, and I just allowed them to share. I said tell us about that. How beautiful is that? Or as they would come dressed in their beautiful clothing, we would just talk about it and and just really celebrate the beauty of how special it was to them. We would take the time to allow them to explain it, and other children would add bits of their culture to the conversation. So then when it was their special religious holiday or event - whatever they were doing, they would want to then come and share that. Because because it was just a safe place for them to share.
My thing with the kids was, I always told the kids, “Hurry, come in close the door. This is our special space.” Like, leave everything out in the hall, leave the world out and I would say, "Hurry, come close the door."
That's a therapeutic thing for children coming from not very safe spaces. Whether it's home or it's the home that they've left behind, a place of security is part of what they need to be able to learn.
TSOS: You told us earlier that the building you started in got torn down and a new one got built. Talk to us about the new building as a source of community.
The thing that's interesting is that we were a “walking only” building. We had no buses.
I loved that so many of our mommas didn't have driver's licenses or cars. So that's the thing they could participate in their children's education - taking them to school, bringing them home from school, because it was it was a walking community. Everyone walked to that school.
When they tore down the original crumbling building, we had to move to another building covered in graffiti - there had been so much graffiti. And, you know, the community took such pride in that new building, that there was never any graffiti on the new building. The parents were so proud that their children went to such a beautiful building, something better than they could have imagined that they could have ever given them. And you know, I was really really proud of KCK (Kansas City, Kansas - Wyandotte County) for that building. They didn't have to build the building that well, but it became a community center where we were able to provide services through our nonprofit, parents could use it as a community center for their organization and service opportunities, and other communities came in to provide services for the students and the community.
The other thing we learned was that the community wanted to be involved in serving themselves. They just didn't want to receive service, they wanted to be a part of service.
The building represented an anchor of those services and place of hope and safety, safety for the children and hope for the parents. It represented hope for their children's future, and it represented safety and security to the children.
TSOS: What programs did you see that helped integrate the students better?
We always tried to see where the children were and assess where they could succeed. Evaluators would physically go to the home and evaluate the basic needs of each student. What is their home environment like? How do the parents feel about bringing their child from their home to our building? Do the parents understand transportation? Do the parents understand schedules, meals, all those things?
With the parents’ permission and always using an interpreter, we decided if they would go to the newcomer school (transitional school) and for what length of time before they were exited out. The time goal was based on each student's independent needs and abilities. At the transitional school there was basic language and class room training that the students needed to be able to do. Some students did it faster and were sent back into their assigned school. Some children took longer, stayed longer until they were ready for their assigned school. So it wasn't always three months in, and then you’re out, and it wasn't like all newcomers went there. It was an individual decision made for each student and the determination as to how successful they would be in that building.
On that topic, many times my classroom was filled with 100% students that were culturally diverse. So when you're trying to place a child and decide if that child can be be successful- are they an English language learner? Do they need more time to integrate? Why are they not growing and developing - OR is a child struggling because they also have a learning disability on top of all the other parts of their training? Because that can be a very tricky thing to figure out. Since every child in my classroom speaks another language, maybe the child is struggling because of the language. But when they all are struggling with the language, I could watch normal progression for all the kids learning English and be able to tell when something else going on - like the child maybe has a learning disability or there's a vision or hearing problem, or maybe there's something else going on here. Because when you have an entire classroom, and English is not their first language, and you're seeing all these children move and grow and develop and do and this one child's not. I felt like we were able to address those a little bit quicker than just continuing to drag those determinations out.
TSOS: Anything else you want to add about integration and helping children succeed?
When you say what can you do to help to help children? It sounds corny, but the truth is really that loving them goes a long, long way. They come with so much. We just don't know. We have to understand that they are trying to do the best that they can.
As we strengthen our relationships with resettlement agencies, friends, and community partners, we are discovering that the work doesn't have to be big to be important.
Rugs? Why would they need rugs? Everything I thought I knew about helping someone acclimate to a new country and a new culture flew straight out the window of the resettlement agency that my TSOS colleagues and I were volunteering at.
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