ROANOKE, Virginia — Donat Jean was in tears as he ended his first day of middle school in the United States at the principal’s office.
Moments before, he was flowing with the stream of children headed outside to the line of rumbling buses. Donat was excited to go home after a tiring day and prepared to board the bus, but a school official stopped him and took him to the office.
It turned out that the new student’s name had not been added to the bus list. School officials tried to reach his parents as the 12-year-old boy waited in the office. Time ticked by, and he began to cry. Donat was just beginning to learn English.
Ashley Cayton, his English learner (EL) teacher, sat with him.
“As a sixth-grader, (missing the bus) probably would have made me cry alone,” Cayton said later. “But I, also, in sixth grade had enough English to communicate with people to fully understand that you’re OK.”
Cayton explained the situation to Donat, telling him that he would make it home safely, but she did not know how much the boy understood about what was going on.
“To him, there’s just a big problem,” she said.
Donat was unfamiliar with buses. Just a year earlier, he was walking to school in the Tanzanian refugee camp where his family lived. He was born in the camp, years after his parents fled civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Donat, who speaks Swahili and can understand his parents’ native Bembe tribe language, had only begun to learn English since he moved to Roanoke with his family in March 2021.
On that first fall day, a network of helpers sprang into action while the buses began to depart. Donat’s mom was at work, but school librarian assistant Madhu Chibbber — a Liberian who speaks Swahili — explained to Donat that an adult would drive him home.
That driver was Corey Allder, Roanoke City Public Schools supervisor of English learner and world language programs.
“Sometimes it feels like almost half of the job is outside of the job descriptions,” Allder said, referring to the library assistant who helped Donat calm down. “She did not wake up that morning thinking she was going to do that, but she was so happy to do it.”
Building the capacity for all teachers to help serve EL students is a main goal, said Allder, who has been in the position since the 2012-13 school year.
Roanoke has more than 1,630 students eligible for EL services, which is nearly 12% of about 14,000 students in the division, according to data from May provided by the city school system. The number of EL students has grown by 50% over the past nine years. With that increase the number of teachers and the amount of government funding allocated for English learning have grown, as well.
Some of the rise in EL students can be attributed to refugee resettlement in the Roanoke area, according to Katie Hedrick, bilingual support specialist with Roanoke’s city government.
“We’re one of only three cities in Virginia with refugee resettlement organizations,” Hedrick wrote in an email to The Roanoke Times. “And the number of refugees admitted has grown with both the upheaval in Afghanistan and the change in federal administration. Additionally, Roanoke is a fairly small city with accessible public transportation, affordable cost of living, and is centrally located within the state. We have also seen that once there is a concentration of families from one cultural or language group, more families are attracted to it because of the familiarity and sense of community.”
Hedrick took the position with the city last year as a result of her efforts to build a language access program for area residents. “We’re hoping to leverage that to benefit students and families in the schools,” she wrote.
To support the growing EL population, the school division has worked with partner agencies including Commonwealth Catholic Charities, a nonprofit that helps refugees resettle in Virginia, to provide refugee liaison positions and translators.
As the Taliban regained control of Afghanistan last summer, CCC notified Allder that the school system could expect an increased enrollment of students from Afghanistan.
Allder partnered with refugee liaisons at CCC, training faculty to work with incoming students.
“Presenters from RCPS and CCC provided cultural and linguistic background information and engaged participants in a dialogue to build our division’s capacity to serve these new students and their families,” according to information the school system provided.
The number that CCC helped resettle has more than doubled in the past three years. There were 92 in 2019, and 199 so far in the 2021-22 fiscal year that ends Sept. 30.
“For many years, Commonwealth Catholic Charities has supported refugees who are escaping violence, war, and persecution in their home countries,” Marnie Mills, the mission advancement associate with CCC wrote in an emailed response to questions.
“We are proud to help them as they start over in Virginia. The Roanoke Valley is a warm and welcoming community, and we are incredibly thankful for the continued generosity and support that our neighbors show to the refugee population here. Since 2019, CCC has assisted 438 refugees to resettle in the Roanoke area.”
Roanoke schools’ students combined speak more than 70 languages. Spanish is predominant, spoken by almost 70% of EL students. Dari, one of the most widely spoken languages in Afghanistan, is next at 5%, with Nepali at 4%. Swahili, the language of students who are primarily from Africa, including the Democratic Republic of Congo, is spoken by 3% of English learners.
“When a student comes in, they have to feel welcome and comfortable and go through some certain phases of not only language acquisition, but also just social adjustment,” Allder said.
“The goal for our kids is to develop English proficiency and the content knowledge that all other students are learning simultaneously. And it does happen.”
Donat, who had the tumultuous end to his first day of school, lives in the Woodrow Wilson Middle School attendance zone in southwest Roanoke, but he attends John P. Fishwick Middle School, three miles away. At Fishwick, the division offers EL services for students who recently arrived in Roanoke and are at beginner-level English proficiency.
Problems can happen with the bus system on the first day of school, especially for EL students who are zoned for different schools. The school division’s transportation office worked with the school to create a new bus stop for Donat. A few mornings later, as the sun rose, Allder waited at Memorial Avenue with Donat, just to make sure everything went smoothly.
Feeling welcome in Roanoke
On a chilly Saturday afternoon in February, Donat played games on his phone while in his family’s living room. Nursery rhymes from the American children’s show “CoComelon” played on the television. His sister Mertha’s eyes were closed as their mother moved her fingers under and upward in a continuous motion through the girl’s dark curly hair. Every few moments, Mertha opened her eyes and smiled at her siblings and cousins as they ran around playing in their Roanoke home.
In Africa, the children’s mother, Mwasi Binge, 29, would braid her daughters’ hair twice a week, to keep it looking neat and fresh. In America, where she and her husband both work full time jobs, once a week has to do, though she would prefer to stay home with their five children.
Her husband, Mwenebyake Alebelebe, 34, works nights so he can care for their younger children, Pier, 2, and Meshak, 4, during the day.
“I chose to do this so that during the day I can deal with their appointments since their mother’s English is limited,” he said through a translator, “I can struggle and make people understand what I’m saying in English.”
Alebelebe cuts door frames at Ply Gem in Rocky Mount. Binge sews handbags in Roanoke.
Mertha cringed a bit as her mother braided close, but not too tight, to her scalp. Binge smiled and kept focus as the soft window light touched her cheeks. “They usually fall asleep when I braid their hair. They are relaxed and they are having a nice time,” Binge said.
“When you’re making the hair you don’t make it too tight at the roots.”
The couple speaks in Swahili. Susan Wilhelm, a translator with Commonwealth Catholic Charities, translated to English.
When the family arrived in Roanoke a little more than a year ago, Mertha Mwenebyake, 6, and her sister, Teelecha Mwenebyake, 7 — like their brother, Donat Jean — did not speak or understand English. The girls have their father’s first name as their last name. Donat has his grandfather’s name as his last name. In the Bembe culture parents choose a last name for their children.
“Previously they were saying that the teacher is talking and they don’t understand what the teacher is saying, and so now they don’t say that anymore which means they understand what the teacher is saying,” Alebelebe said about his children.
Alebelebe and Binge lived very different lives when they were their children’s age.
At age 8, Alebelebe watched men with guns invade his family’s small fishing village located along Lake Tanganyika, in the South Kivu province of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He remembers being scared and running to hide with his mother. It was 1996.
As Civil War engulfed the DRC, Binge and her family fled the country when she was 3. Her only memories from Africa are the years spent in a refugee camp in Tanzania. The couple met at the camp in 2008 and married the following year.
They lived there 26 years, before the International Organization for Migration sent them to Roanoke.
The parents speak Kibembe, which is their Congolese Bembe tribal language, and Swahili, Tanzania’s national language. They speak some French, the DRC’s official language, and Lingala, one of the many native Congolese languages.
Learning English is important to Alebelebe and Binge and they hope to progress along with their children.
The couple attended English classes at Blue Ridge Literacy in Roanoke, an organization that provides language skills for adults in Western Virginia. They stopped going in order to work full time and take care of their children.
They now use Google Translate to help them communicate and study English using various language-learning apps on their phones.
Alebelebe said his family has felt welcome in Roanoke.
“Here we’ve come as refugees, but how we’ve been received here we don’t feel like refugees,” Alebelebe said. “Initially you know first you would see a white or Caucasian person and you will have so much fear because that is something so foreign … but we have come here to speak with you. We eat with you. We work together. We live well together.”
He worked in construction in Tanzania, but said refugees there were not given freedom to own things such as a car or a bike and they had very little food.
Alebelebe was somewhat concerned about coming to the United States. “I heard people here would look down on us because we’re from Africa and we talk differently,” he said, “but then I came here and I discovered there were many of us who don’t speak English.”
War has been a primary reason that refugees have left their homelands.
The family resettled from the Nyarugusu Camp, which opened in November 1996 to host people fleeing the ongoing civil war in DRC, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency.
The agency reported that in 2018 the camp hosted 153,024 refugees and was in the process of resettling Congolese who arrived in Tanzania between 1994 and 2005.
The organization also published a 2013 report that described the camp’s poor living conditions.
“The mission reported insufficient infrastructure in primary schools, specifically referring to a lack of furniture, a laboratory or a library, and the use of pit latrines. There are limited opportunities for higher learning after secondary education,” according to the report.
Alebelebe recalled the camp’s strict regulations.
“Eight o’clock, everybody has to be asleep,” he said. “No walking around, not doing anything. If you’re arrested outside, you’re going to be beaten (with) a lot of strokes.”
The report also stated: “There are considerable risks to refugees who leave the designated area. The risk of rape, exploitation, and conflict with local communities is present.”
The children enjoyed school in the refugee camp, but hunger made it hard for them to learn and focus. The availability of food in American schools has improved his children’s ability to learn, Alebelebe said.
“Here you go to school for maybe eight hours and there is food,” he said. “Sometimes when they come home from school, they don’t even want food.”
The children have their favorites.
“I like apples and bananas,” Teelecha said.
“My favorite food is gummy bears,” Mertha said.
The parents are wary about their children’s access to sugar in the United States. They would prefer only fresh foods for them.
Learning in practice
The sisters’ hands shot upward with excitement.
“Me, me” they said, each wanting the first chance to describe a photo.
A group of four level-one English learners gathered around a horseshoe-shaped table with their EL teacher, Casey Redd, in a small, EL-specific classroom at Virginia Heights Elementary School. A screen showed a pug dog wrapped in a blanket, sitting on a trail in the woods. Redd called on Mertha and asked her to say what she saw in the picture.
“A dog,” Mertha said.
“Blanket and a tree.”
What do you think that dog is thinking?
“For the newcomers,” Redd said, “it’s really helpful to pull them out (of class) for those 30 minutes, or however many minutes you have, to really focus on learning English and practicing it because they don’t always have time or feel comfortable and confident to speak English in the classroom. It sort of gives them a little safe bubble to learn and to practice, and then go back to the classroom.”
Redd was a general education teacher for eight years at Virginia Heights Elementary School and was already used to working with EL students in her classes. Last year she saw a flier promoting EL certification. It’s part of a program encouraging professional development for classroom teachers who wish to help serve EL students — a goal that city EL supervisor Allder sought to attain.
Redd liked the idea of working in smaller groups, so she took the eight-week class, passed the test and this year became an EL teacher at Virginia Heights.
She said that it’s a challenge for a general education teacher to find time to work closely with the EL students.
“You have so many other students and so many other subjects to teach, you can’t be as dedicated to work on the language piece. You’re still trying to teach them science, math, reading all the things,” Redd said. “But as an EL teacher, your main job is to support their English learning.”
She said she has seen tremendous growth in the sisters.
Teelecha sometimes slept during class at the beginning of the school year. But now she is anxious to participate.
“This has been a humongous change in this child’s life,” Redd said. “They’ve left everything they know. You have to give them that space to just take it in. It’s very exhausting to their brains to be hearing a different language they don’t know, all day long.”
Redd began to see Teelecha’s confidence and comfort level pick up in late fall.
“I think listening is kind of the first skill that they get, they can understand a lot by hearing,” Redd said. “But having the confidence to say something in English, I think took a little bit longer for her.”
The sisters wore matching shirts adorned with a young girl dressed in pink and blowing a kiss alongside letters written in blue cursive that said, “Always and forever.”
They laughed freely at the images of unexpected juxtapositions on the screen.
Mertha jumped up and ran to the screen that showed an image of animals sitting around a table drinking coffee.
“A duck,” Mertha exclaimed, pointing to three yellow ducklings walking across the table.
“She is such a little free spirit, kind of spunky, in a good way,” Redd said of Mertha. “So for her, she was never shy. She has adjusted well to classroom rules and procedures and kind of how we behave at school in America and things like that.”
Mertha is showing more confidence in speaking, her teacher said.
“She’ll say things unprompted. Like she’ll say, ‘Oh, Mrs. Redd, I really like your hair,’ ” Redd said. “Which I think is huge. It’s not academic but it’s great. It’s kind of a milestone, because she did it on her own.”
Redd stays in close contact with her students’ family members and guardians, and she likes that many of them feel comfortable asking for help with such things as getting their children eyeglasses or accessing food donations.
Over the past 10 years, the division has maintained a lower student-per-EL teacher ratio than required by the state, allowing them to focus more attention on their students. Currently, Roanoke schools employ 32 full-time EL teachers, two more than the state requirement for a division of Roanoke’s size.
“That’s been vital, because that’s been instrumental in some of our success,” Allder said. “It’s not just about the ratio. We’ve been able to do things more specialized and more specific to our student needs, because we’ve always had more staffing than what was required by the state.”
One way the system addresses specific needs involves Donat attending Fishwick Middle School, where services for beginning English learners are consolidated for the middle school students. Teachers do not have to visit multiple schools. At Woodrow Wilson Middle School, services are in place for more advanced English learners who do not need so many daily support services.
The division administers tests to students at the beginning of the year, to identify who is eligible for EL services. Then a state standard test is given yearly to measure English language proficiency.
“In Virginia, students are eligible to receive services until they reach a threshold score of 4.4 on a six-point scale. Once they reach the threshold score, they are still monitored for four years,” according to a school division statement.
Recovering lost learning
Donat bit into a treat he’d never tasted before.
“Was it crunchy?” Cayton asked. Donat nodded his head. Yes.
“Was it sweet?” Another nod.
The group of sixth-graders made s’mores in an after-school program for English learners at Fishwick Middle School.
Teacher Teresa Martin brought in her portable s’mores-making oven, as students used the treats as a learning opportunity.
The week before, she and Cayton covered sequence words with the English learners, and now the students put their knowledge to work.
First, you place a graham cracker, the children were instructed. Next, you add chocolate, then you add a marshmallow.
“Finally, you can enjoy it,” Cayton said.
The program, which takes place every Monday during the school year, helps meet the needs of EL students at Fishwick, some of whom struggled during the pandemic.
Virtual instruction was a challenge for some families, such as Alebelebe, Donat’s dad, who said he was not familiar with using a computer.
“External pressure on families was also a challenge — some parents/guardians were unable to work or had severely limited hours and that led some older students to seek employment to help support their families,” the school division said in a written statement.
Returning to classrooms in fall 2020 helped EL students overcome barriers they experienced during virtual learning.
In-person instruction is particularly important for students learning English because they learn from visuals, body language and other non-verbal communication, the school division said in its statement.
While after-school tutoring has been available for students in the past, all funding for the program now comes from one of the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Unfinished Learning (ESSER II) grants, which were passed by Congress as part of COVID-19 pandemic aid in 2020. Funding will continue through September 2023.
“With the expanded needs due to the pandemic, it has been extremely beneficial to have the new grants to help meet those needs,” Allder said about the Unfinished Learning grants.
The program, which draws as many as 70 students, helps reinforce what is taught during the day.
Allder was an EL teacher for four years at William Fleming High School, starting in 2008. Through conversations with general education teachers there, he came to recognize the need for such programs. He started an after-school program for English learners at Fleming in 2009, intending to help with both academics and engagement.
“If you came from a refugee background, or limited or interrupted schooling, you really need someone to take the time to lay the foundation with language and just content basics,” Allder said.
The school system receives federal money to cover many costs of English language instruction.
Additional funding comes through Title I, which helps schools with high percentages of minority students and children from low-income families.
After-school programs, summer programs and professional learning for teachers are part of Allder’s agenda, as he tries to level the playing field for English learners. He thinks of his own children, who know English and whose parents are teachers, and he wants children coming from elsewhere to have a starting point closer to theirs.
“What we were trying to do is move the line of scrimmage, like a football analogy: You don’t want to start from your own goal line and try to go 100 yards,” he said.
Student faces light up with recognition when Allder visits the EL afterschool programs. Some run over to say hello. They see him not only when he substitute teaches or helps with afterschool programs, but when he makes home visits.
During the height of the pandemic, Allder went to students’ homes, delivering meal kits and books that the school, volunteer organizations, churches and community groups had provided.
Recently, he visited homes where there are concerns about kids dropping out. Karina Altamirano, a bilingual assistant, joined him.
“We tried to make phone calls, but numbers change a lot,” Allder said. “It’s a lack of stability sometimes and being able to pay cellphone bills.”
The two educators talked to parents or students about what the school division could do differently to help the student re-engage with their high schools experience and get their diplomas.
“What advice do you have for us to welcome your beautiful family?” he asked Alebelebe during a home visit.
“Continue to show the love and support like you have shown me,” Alebelebe answered, through a translator.
Alebelebe said the teachers reaching out to him in Swahili helped make his family feel welcome. The division’s teachers use an app called TalkingPoints, which translates English to languages including Swahili.
“I think they have a lot of love because they want me to understand what is going on,” Alebelebe said.
Mertha and Teelecha burst into their home and ran upstairs, where they threw their backpacks on the bed after school.
When asked how school was, Mertha said, “It’s good. I learned to eat and play outside and work.”
She opened her backpack, pulled out a book and brought it downstairs to the family room where her father, siblings and cousins, who also live there, had gathered.
Mertha knelt on the floor and spooned her body over the book, “Zombelina School Days,” by Kristyn Crow. Her younger siblings peeked over her shoulder. Mertha opened the book and slowly and cautiously pronounced the letters as she read. She made it a couple pages in, but the other children wanted to go outside.
“Let’s play tag,” Teelecha exclaimed.
Donat looked out from the backyard balcony as his four younger siblings and two cousins ran and rolled in tall green grass, plucking dandelion flowers and blowing on seeds that parachuted into the wind.