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The Karen change Calhoun schools, learn new world (video)

Aug. 30, 2012 at 3:30 a.m.
Updated Sept. 8, 2012 at 4:08 a.m.

Probably the least affected by the political persecution of the tribal Karen people in their native country of Myanmar, Eh Paw Paw enjoys a life of political and religious freedom in the United States.

Probably the least affected by the political persecution of the tribal Karen people in their native country of Myanmar, Eh Paw Paw enjoys a life of political and religious freedom in the United States.   Frank Tilley for The Victoria Advocate

PORT LAVACA - The muffled sounds of high-pitched chatter and giggles filled the small waiting area of Bianca's Fashion Boutique.

A group of energetic, high school girls piled into one dressing room and embarked upon one of the biggest decisions of their young lives - choosing a prom dress.

"I can't wait to see myself in this dress with makeup," Charnita Dah told her teachers and friends as she emerged from behind the royal purple curtain that served as the dressing room door and strutted toward the full-length mirror.

Standing on her tip-toes to check how long the dress would hang when she put on heels, she talked about dancing the night away to any Taylor Swift song.

"The color is pretty, and I look like a model," gushed Dah, who has been in the United States for five years.

Prom at Calhoun High represented an end to a long journey for Dah and her seven friends, all of whom hail from a homeland where proms and ball gowns do not exist but danger and genocide are an everyday reality.

The girls are part of Port Lavaca's growing Karen refugee community, composed mostly of refugees from Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, and Thailand.

The formal dance provided the Karen students with another opportunity to integrate into both the social and academic experience of American culture; at least, that is the goal Calhoun school district employees have been working toward.

"I was so happy they wanted to go," said Terry Sauer, one of the Calhoun High School English-as-a-Second-Language teachers who took Dah to pick out her prom dress. "That means they are feeling comfortable enough to intermingle with the other students in a social setting."


Calhoun school district Director of Curriculum Debbie Swope sat in her office one October 2007 day when one of the district's aides told her five students had come to enroll in classes, but they did not speak English.

Little did she know, her short walk to the front to greet the new students would soon turn into one of the longest, most rewarding odysseys of her educational career.

"I remember it was total chaos," Swope said, laughing.

No protocol was in place at the South Texas school for how to communicate //with, let alone teach, Karen students from the other side of the world.

May Thet, an English-speaking Karen woman known by many as simply "Ms. May," had escorted the children to school to help them complete their enrollment paperwork.

During the next couple of hours, Thet escorted the children to the Calhoun County Health Department to get vaccinations and, more importantly, translate for the students and school and health department personnel.

The process was repeated during the next days, with a total of about 100 Karen students enrolling during the first wave.

"They were very trusting of the school," Swope said about the Karen parents' willingness to do what they needed to do to get the students enrolled.


Even determining which grades to place the students in was a challenge.

Some students did not attend school in the refugee camps. Others did not have transcripts detailing their academic histories, nor could they speak English to pass grade-placement tests.

Ultimately, the students were placed in grades based on their age.

But some did not even know their age. For these students, staff members had no choice but to guess their ages based on their appearance, another difficult task given the petite stature and youthful look of the Karen people.

Most of the students were placed in elementary school, with about six sent to middle school and six sent to high school.

Those who were 16 or older were automatically assigned to the ninth grade to provide them with a full four years of high school to learn English.

School officials hired Thet to work as a translator.

The language barrier and unfamiliarity with American customs made it difficult for the teachers to gauge whether their lessons were being received by the students.

In addition to academics, teachers and school volunteers had to teach students other lessons such as the how-tos of basic American personal hygiene.

Starting afresh at a new school in a new country was difficult for Karen students such as Bar Ret Htoo.

Born in a refugee camp in Thailand, Htoo came to the United States six years ago and started her schooling in the first grade in Houston. When she was in second grade, her family moved to Port Lavaca, where her parents took jobs as packers at Inteplast.

Htoo, now a 14-year-old Travis Middle School eighth-grader, and her siblings were among the first group of Karen children to enroll in CISD.

"I wasn't really happy about it at first," Htoo said about the move. "All my friends were" in Thailand.


After limping through the first year, the district sought outside help.

Scrambling for answers, Swope and other school administrators discovered that school districts in Fort Worth and New Braunfels offered newcomer academies.

During their first two to three years, new non-English-speaking students in the academies were provided intensive English-as-a-Second-Language instruction, as well as lessons in content-area and elective classes.

Eventually, students progressed to just one ESL class a day.

The programs were staffed with teachers and assistants highly trained in ESL and bilingual methodology and hired specifically to teach in the program.

Impressed with the success of the programs, the Calhoun school district soon adopted some of the newcomer academy strategies to its own ESL program.

Some of the major changes the district made included hiring some new ESL teachers and coaches, mainly for the high school, and providing teachers already on the payroll with additional training.

Other steps included mandatory summer school for the first three years; use of Rosetta Stone software; after-school tutoring in core subject areas; field trips to local places like the zoo and museum; and the implementation of the Sedlitz teaching strategy to help students learn the content as quickly as they could.

They were also fortunate enough to find Karen-to-English and vice-versa dictionaries, as well as other learning materials, all published by Drum Publications.

Annually, it costs the school district about $5,500 to educate each English-speaking student at the elementary school level and $6,500 per student at the high school level.

New salaries, reports and materials drive up the cost to educate international, non-English speaking students like the Karen, said Swope, who could not provide an exact dollar amount.

These costs are funded by a combination of local and state tax dollars, as well as federal money, including $80,000 in grants the district was awarded this past school year.

After Thet left the area and school district following the 2007-08 school term, the district also relied heavily on new volunteers to assist with translating when necessary.

State testing continued to be an obstacle for the Karen students because of the language barriers. Almost all Karen students struggled with passing the English Language Arts section of the state tests.


The language barrier also caused problems beyond state testing for most Karen students, Daniel Nay included.

"I didn't know where to go," Daniel, 16, said about his first day on campus. "I didn't even know what the teacher was talking about."

For the first couple of weeks, Daniel, who came to Port Lavaca in 2009, said teachers had to escort him from class to class because he could not read the signs.

Socially, the Karen students had a hard time adjusting.

Before she learned English, Htoo said non-Karen students would often steal her lunch, forcing her to be at the mercy of the school to provide her with something free to eat for the day.

Name-calling and racist remarks were also commonplace, she said.

"Some didn't want to hang out with us," said Nay. "They made fun of us and called us chinks."

Andrew Nay, 18, attended school in a Thailand refugee camp but said it was a vastly different experience.

"I saw a computer, but I never touched the mouse," Andrew said of school in Thailand.

Born in Myanmar, Andrew and his family, including brother Daniel Nay, came to Port Lavaca in 2009 after spending 10 years in the camp.

Andrew recently finished his coursework at Calhoun High School and is working on passing the writing portion of the state-mandated test.


In the refugee camp, students attended school with no textbooks, no electricity and no building - the classrooms were outdoors.

During the four-hour school day, uniform-clad students took classes like math, Karen, science and Burmese history.

Despite the meager supplies available, education was a priority in the Nay household, in part because the patriarch of the family was a teacher.

Gay Nay, Andrew's father, taught math to students inside and outside the camp for 20 years, completing his teacher training with a non-governmental agency called ZOA in 2006.

During his teaching career, Nay primarily taught third- and fourth-graders, as well as high schoolers.

He described his teaching materials as being minimal, allowing just one textbook for the teacher.

Despite his efforts to keep his students on track, the dire situation in the camp often created unavoidable distractions for students.

Although each family receives food rations semimonthly, refugees often had to supplement their food supply by hunting, planting or working to earn a minimal wage to purchase food where available.

Family members, young and old, were often tasked with chipping in to help keep food on the table.

"Parents were invested in their children's education," Nay said through translator Steimetz Dune. "But for them, food is more important than education."


Nay said coming to America provided better educational opportunities for his five children, who range in age 8 to 20.

"Here, if you don't study and try hard, you get left behind," said Nay, who takes solace that his children can focus on school instead of worrying over their safety or where their next meal will come from. "By coming here and studying hard, they can have a good advancement in education."

Nay and his wife, Hser Nay, said they would like to be more involved in their children's education, but their lack of fluency excludes them from being able to check homework assignments, let alone attend parent-teacher conferences or PTO meetings.

They also must work long shifts at Inteplast, which limits the time they have to learn English.

One aspect of American schools that Nay is not always fond of is the use of technology, which can sometimes hinder students from exercising their own brain muscles.

"In the jungle, you had to use your brains," Nay said. "Here, you use a computer."


As the voice of Calhoun High School Principal Brandon L. Stiewig came across the loudspeaker of Sauer's classroom, she asked her talkative students to be quiet and listen.

Before Stiewig could lead the school in the Pledge of Allegiances to the United States and the Texas flag, she asked all of her Advanced High ESL students to stand.

"You don't have to pledge to the flag, but you do have to be respectful," she told them.

This lesson in civility was just one of several that Sauer has taught her ESL students during the past two years.

The 31-year veteran teacher came out of retirement to teach non-English speakers from Honduras, Mexico, Puerto Rico and Myanmar.

Her classroom is filled with dictionaries, copies of the Victoria Advocate and posters with encouraging words, all part of the arsenal she uses daily on the front lines in the fight to transform students into high school graduates.

So far, five Karen students have earned basic diplomas - two in 2011 and three in 2012.

Based on the results of their pending state retake results, another three could be walking away with a diploma in hand by the end of the summer.

The school district also has conferred certificates of completion to two Karen students.

Enrollment numbers for Karen students have changed little during the past five years.

Of the district's 410 students categorized as Limited English Proficient students, about 80 are Karen, a slight decrease from the first year they arrived.

Swope attributed the minimal change to the fact that new students are coming in at the same pace that others are graduating, aging out or leaving school to work full time.

In high school, ESL classes are divided into four levels: beginning, intermediate, advanced and advanced high.

Each year, students take the Texas English Language Proficiency Assessment System, which assesses the progress that limited English students make in developing both conversational and academic language proficiency and it determines which level of ESL to place them in the following school year.

"Quit while one's ahead," Sauer said, as she went over idioms from the book "Tuck Everlasting" with her students.

Idioms are just the most recent lesson for the students, most of whom have passed all sections of the state test, except for the writing portion.


From her time working with the Karen students, Sauer said she has noticed they are more willing to use English than other immigrant students, a practice that will lead them to fluency at a faster pace.

"Maybe it's because they don't have anyone to translate for them," said Sauer. "They realize they have to speak in English to communicate."

Daniel said he has worked on becoming more fluent in English by watching cartoons and practicing it with his friends.

He has even learned a little Spanish along the way.

Reading has now become Htoo's favorite thing to do.

She especially loves to read any book written by R.L. Stine.

Within the next 10 years, Sauer predicted Karen students will rise up the ranks to become valedictorians and salutatorians because of their strong will to succeed in academics.

In May, Monday Nay, Daniel and Andrew Nay's sister, graduated 49th in her class of 220 students and earned a Rotary Club college scholarship.

Other students have taken the state test eight times with no plans to give up until they pass. This speaks to the Karen's commitment to education, Sauer said.

"They want it more than some of our kids born and raised here," she said. "To them, it's a gift."

The students have also made progress socially.

"We eat," a smiling Dah said as she used her limited English skills to happily share her best prom night memory and show off pictures taken at the prom on her cell phone.

Since arriving in America, the children also have gotten involved in extracurricular activities.

While Daniel played percussion in the Calhoun High School band and played for the football team, his brother Andrew sang in the school choir.

Another athlete, Htoo jumps hurdles and runs the sprint and distance races for her middle school's track team, in addition to playing on the basketball team and serving as the manager for the school's volleyball team.

Students have also learned to combat bullying in a respectable way.

"I tell the teacher," Htoo said. "But I know a lot of Karen who just stay still and don't do anything about it."


College has entered the radar of many of the recent graduates and current students.

Their refugee status makes them eligible to receive federal grants and loans, but none from private lenders.

Swope, the curriculum director, and other Calhoun school staff said they appreciated being able to witness the Karen students grow from not knowing one word of English to attending major social events such as prom and eventually walking across the stage with diplomas in hand.

"It's been an amazing journey," said Swope. "We've all learned a lot and made mistakes, but honest mistakes. We are learning as we go."

Related story:

Myanmar refugees consider uncertain future click HERE.

Burmese immigrants pursue home ownership, education, career click HERE.

Becoming an American girl click HERE.

Immigrants find Port Lavaca a haven from hell on Earth, click HERE

Plastics plant welcomes Burmese immigrants to Port Lavaca, click HERE.



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