Fairview Elementary School is one of the most diverse elementary schools in America right next to Mountain View Elementary School. What makes Alaska unique is the various cultures that are within our state. Diversity brings in both richness and challenges for educators. One of the largest of those: language.
“We have a lot of students that come with not speaking English or speaking very limited English,” said Dianne Orr, the principal.
The school focuses on a culturally driven academic program that allows students to submerse themselves into the American culture as well as their peers’ cultures, she said.
The most valuable learning experience the students learn is about accepting and embracing the diversity of others and themselves, she said. Within the school, there is about 90 to 95 percent of non-Caucasians who come from different parts of the world such as Somalia, France, Kenya, and many more. The diversity is very prominent in the school, and the staff and teachers are very aware of the dynamics of the school’s cultures said Julie Sery, the assistant principal. The dynamic of the school’s diversity gives the students and teachers an advantage of learning other cultures.
At the beginning of the year, the staff and teachers prepare loads of socially emotional lessons for the students to learn. These lessons are meant to teach the children how to interact with their peers and to gain language skills to use in their everyday lives.
Sery, the assistant principal says they are “heavy on teaching those language skills” and “try to support that in their lesson plans whether it’s through different literature or activities that might be familiar to them.”
It is a crucial step to understand and accept all the students’ cultural background and embrace each other with open hands, the principal and assistant principal said.
Within the school, it is important to understand where everyone comes from and weave that into each classroom. Fairview builds around the idea of celebrating those cultures in all aspects of the school and education, says Sery. Whether it’s decorating the halls with artwork from the students, making or bringing in food from their culture, or sharing music, the school exemplifies the acceptance of everyone’s culture.
Lesson plans around building academic skills as well as teaching kids how to be culturally aware are the foundations of learning within each classroom. It may be through discussions, books they read and discuss in class, and other activities that focuses on listening and talking with one another.
During the first part of the year, the teachers like to spend their times getting to know the students as individuals.
“What makes you special? Now, what makes us special as a group? Sometimes we start off as that individual, but now we are together and what makes us special.”
Every day, most of the students that have not reached the academic standards are pulled out of their class to spend time with the English-language learners’ (ELL). This class is comprised of students that speak another language. Elizabeth Lowrance and Ma Rowena Sargento teach some of the ELL classes.
The first thing the children learn is “survival language skills,” says Sargento. The survival social language skills consists of learning basic understanding everyday words to communicate with one another.
According to Lowrance’s experience working with the ELL students, she says that they really learn a lot fast. The classroom atmosphere depends on the students, so it ranges from quiet to chattering.
“They’re quiet for a while, and then when they start learning English, they want to use it all the time,” Lowrance laughs.
Every student has a different background, different story to tell. And when it’s time to learn in class, they learn in groups and sometimes one on one if they are monolingual. The lesson plan for the year consists of quality rather than quantity. Sargento and Lowrance believe that it is not about finishing the units, it’s more about how much they can retain and use within and out of school.
When it comes down to it, Lowrance and Sargento wouldn’t teach anything else. Lowrance explains how she taught ten years in Texas until she came to Alaska.
“I love the stories that the students bring. I have a boy from Kenya who lived in several places in Africa before his parents found a way to the United States. And the stories that he tells and the places that he has been. He speaks Kenyan and French, and now he’s learning English,” Lowrance says.
After the children have had their time in their ELL classes, they head back to their regular-Ed classes. Second grade teacher, Marivat Obeidi started off as an ELL student herself and now teaches regular-Ed classes. She also knows how important it is to instill the American culture and the cultures of the students within the classroom.
“So, we start off the year by discussing where we’re from. We do a lot of focus on social studies and the globe. Continents and countries and how we’re all part of the same world, and how our differences can really beautify a classroom,” she says regarding how she teaches in her class.
The classroom is plastered with each students’ arts and crafts and the things they have learned. From signing their autographs on the SOAR board to their success stickers on the Believe in Yourself board, the classroom is filled with the time and effort of each student’s learning progress.
The students not only learn from their teachers, the teachers also learn from their students.
Obeidi says, “You know, they taught me the importance of patience, love, community building, respect, positivity, how important that is to stay positive.”
Each and every student creates the diverse atmosphere of cultures within Fairview Elementary School. Within the community of Fairview Elementary, they all share a loving bond.
When Obeidi sits back and takes a look at her class, she says, “There’s a lot of love with these kids. They really are. They look out for each other on the playground, they look out for each other in the lunch room. They’ve gotten close to each other. They have so much love for each other.”