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World Languages Abound at KPS
Linda Mah
/ Categories: Communications

World Languages Abound at KPS

Wealth of Languages Equals Wealth of Experiences

It might not be all that surprising to hear that Kalamazoo Public Schools serves children who speak Spanish, Chinese or Vietnamese.

Or, to learn that the district also serves students whose first language is Arabic, Japanese or Swahili.

But the diversity of languages spoken in KPS goes far beyond those languages. The number of students coming into the district who speak another language is growing at a surprising pace.

In total, almost 1,459 students in the district speak one of 54 different languages, some of which may be familiar: Bulgarian, Danish, Dutch, Persian, French, and Korean; and some of which you may never have heard of before, including Cebuano, Ga, and Igbo.

“KPS has a number of strong suits,” said KPS Superintendent Dr. Michael F. Rice. ”Our diversity is among our greatest strengths. We value the tremendous range of experiences and backgrounds — ethnic, socioeconomic, religious, linguistic, and others — from which our children come.”

Ramona Fletcher, coordinator of bilingual, English as a Second Language, and world languages, said the diversity of languages in the district represents a unique learning experience for all students. “It is an opportunity for all of our students to be able to make friends with students from so many countries in the world of which they may have had no prior knowledge regarding geography, language, or culture. It assists our staff as well as our students in raising cultural awareness and respect.”

Recently, the district has seen a spike in students who speak other languages, Fletcher said. That is because the district has seen an influx of refugees, some of whom arrive with their families and some who have come as unaccompanied minors. Most of those individuals and families are sponsored by agencies such as Bethany Christian Services, she said.

Fifty students have joined the district since this summer. The district is working to ensure the students are attending the appropriate ESL centers, she said.

Perhaps nowhere is the influx of students more obvious than in Ryan LaBudda’s English as a Second Language class at Kalamazoo Central High School. Typically, he said, he sees classes with small numbers of English learners. This year, his first hour has 21 students.

That is the most he has seen since 2001.

“English learners are so interesting to work with,” LaBudda said. “They are so eager to learn. They really want to be successful and to perform well for all of their classroom teachers.”

On a recent October morning, LaBudda was explaining the concept of “commands,” and running the students through short sentences such as, “Please, raise your hand,” “Please raise your binder,” “Please point to the teacher.”

The students also practiced reading a bit of dialogue in small groups and then got up to speak in front of the class.

LaBudda is teaching the basics of language: grammar, master as high school students but as potential workers, college students and responsible community members.

Labudda said he has tremendous respect for the students and some of the intense challenges they’ve experienced, experiences that many American citizens may have difficulty imagining. For some of his students, they are coming to a community where, for the first time, they have hope, he said.

“I feel honored to be a part of their lives and their educational experience,” LaBudda said.
Their journeys have not been easy, Fletcher said. Many of the refugee children have lived in multiple refugee camps, in other countries. One Pakistani student, for instance, came to Kalamazoo from a camp in Malaysia. Some have never known life outside of the camps, she said. Refugee children are coming from Syria, Guatemala, Afghanistan, Kenya, Eritrea, and Congo, among other countries.

In LaBudda’s class, students bring a wide range of experiences.

Cantenuma, 16, came to Kalamazoo after the rest of his family had already moved here. They are originally from Guinea-Bissau in West Africa. He’s been here only a month, but understands enough English to say his original languages are Portuguese and Creole.

Dawit is an 18-year-old unaccompanied youth from Eritrea, where he lived with his grandparents and brother. He’s been in the United States for one year, spending nine months in Lawrence before moving to a group home in Kalamazoo. He said he likes his friends in school, soccer and basketball, and, someday, he’d like to go to college.

“Although these students may have difficulty in expressing themselves due to the language barriers they are working to overcome, they add a global richness and diversity to their classrooms and schools,” Fletcher said.

Rice added, “We are working to prepare our children for life in a global society and exposure to all forms of diversity helps our children in this regard.”

To see a list of the languages spoken by students in KPS, click on the document link below. 

Cutline: Dawit and Helder (L to R) work on a translation exercise in Ryan LaBudda's English as a Second Language class at Kalamazoo Central. 

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