A Visit to the Dame School

Nov 16, 2011

Exchange Executive Producer, Keith Shields visits Dame Elementary in East Concord, a school that over 10 years has seen a substantial growth in its immigrant and refugee population.

It’s lunch time at Dame Elementary School in East Concord. About 30 students sit enjoying a meal of burgers and fries. Their faces are a panoply of colors. They come from Sudan, Togo, Burundi, Afghanistan, Nepal and Egypt.

Fifty two of Dame Elementary’s four hundred students are English Language learners. That means they were born as refugees, or they immigrated to the state from another country, or their parents speak a second language at home. But less than 10 years ago, there was only a quarter of that number of English Language Learner or ELL students. But then the first groups of African refugees began to arrive, followed by Iraqis and Nepalese and according to Mary Strawb, an ELL tutor at the school, the staff was taken by surprise.

“In the beginning, they would just show up. And they’d be looking all over the school for us and we’d be just putting them in the classroom and we would have to be 1 on 1 with them. We were with them all the time. We would be walking the halls with them. We’d be finding empty classrooms to work with. And it was difficult, but I think we’re learning. So it was a big learning curve for me and for them, we learned together.

But the teaching experience went far beyond teaching a new language... many new students had never even been to school before, many were illiterate even in their own language. Some students didn’t even know how to hold a pencil, sit in an upright chair, or use a public bathroom... So, it was an all inclusive learning experience for teachers as well.  Pat Little is another ELL tutor at the school

“There was what we saw as behavioral problems and I think part of that was kids just getting overwhelmed with hearing another language all day, not understanding what was happening. Some of them had no chance in the camps to play with toys, things like that so, they were often distracted by the fun things within the classroom. So how to modify what they needed to do in the classroom, and what they had as needed as little students in developmentally different stages was a bit of a challenge too.”

But the teachers at Dame Elementary took on the new challenge. Lori Hart works with families at the school and recalls how in the early days, teachers and staff had to roll up their sleeves and do a lot of extra work.

“There was a grant writing team led by our former principle that put in many hours writing grants to increase services for families. We really focused on staff development, teachers on their own time would go out and watch movies about different cultures or read books, we do home visiting, so we’d go into the home and get to know the family and to understand the culture. And there was a lot of work on the teacher’s part to do their best teaching and learn strategies that help children learn.”

Over time teachers realized that in order better integrate their new foreign born students; they needed include educating the parents as well.  Many of them had never attended school themselves or were educated in far different settings. So now before attending the Dame school, new foreign born students and their families get a home visit by a staff member, where they learn about the New Hampshire school system. Later they come they make a visit to the school where they can slowly get used to what it’s like to be in at Dame.  Students sit in a classroom while parents meet the Principal.  All seem to agree that it’s greatly helped the transition process for everyone from the student to the parent to the teacher.  Sharon Surrette teaches first grade at the school

“We often partner up some of the ELL kids with some of the American kids and set them up with a good role model, especially when they’re brand new, and at this age, the kids are so helpful and so willing to play that role and really so interested in the new kids. It’s just become who we are at Dame School that I feel like; a lot of the parents appreciate the diversity we have now. And I think a lot of the parents understand that this is real world, this is what reality is going to be like for their kids so for them to know it from an early age that we’re not all the same color, we don’t all come from same place, we don’t all speak the same language that they appreciate that their kids are getting exposed to it at an young age, so it’s just a natural transition for them.”   

Despite the early challenges, many at Dame Elementary now agree that new students have brought the community closer together.  Foreign born parents who have been here a few years now act as ‘brokers’ for newly arrived families.  Parents come to the school for help with bills and social service applications because they’ve developed trust with the staff of the school and it’s brought a new diversity to the community with families from many different cultures, sharing a common goal: a good education for their children. Once again, Lori Hart.

“Last week in our family center program and there were 3 dads. One dad was from Nepal, one dad was from Burundi, from Africa and one was an American dad and they were singing these American song and just being dads and wanting, we all want the same for our children, we want them to do well, we want them to have an education, we want them to have friends at school and we want them to have a better life.”

For the Exchange, I’m Keith Shields