Students participate in an active learning exercise in a classroom at Kansas City Public Schools’ new International Welcome Center during a ribbon-cutting and open house for the center Sept. 17 in Kansas City. (Zach Bauman/The Beacon)

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At the Sept. 17 open house to celebrate Kansas City Public Schools’ new center for recent immigrants, teachers and students were already busy learning. 

“What sound does a bee make?” one teacher asked a group of young students gathered in a circle on the floor to listen to a children’s book about animal noises.

“Quack!” one student yelled.

But within a few seconds, all the students were doing their best impressions of a bee buzzing, then shouting “bumblebee” in unison. 

KCPS’ International Welcome Center is meant to be a place where newcomers to the U.S. feel safe to learn — and make mistakes. Its students arrive without knowing English and with limited or disrupted formal education.

The program is designed to help them gain the language and cultural and educational skills they need to succeed in the classroom while also connecting them to community resources and services. 

As the number of refugees moving into the area increases, the program may become even more vital to the district, which already hosts the largest English language learner program in Missouri, according to Allyson Hile, director of language services and cultural equity for the district. 

As of Sept. 20, the program serves 46 students, with four more families expected to join in the next few days, Hile said.  She estimated there are close to 3,700 students receiving English language learner services in the district, with hundreds more who recently exited the program but are being monitored in case they need support.  

That would be more than a quarter of projected K-12 enrollment for this school year.

“I’m really proud that this is here and that there’s a place for families to come and feel a sense of security, a sense of belonging, that they can get the help that they need in one central location, and really get off on the best foot possible,” Hile said of the welcome center.

“Because they face so many struggles, and we don’t want to be one of them.”

A KCPS immigrant student success story

When Engoma Fataki started high school through Kansas City Public Schools at age 19, he sat through an English class about how to structure an essay without even knowing what the word “essay” meant. 

Fataki was born in the Democratic Republic of the Congo but fled his home country with his family when he was 1, spending the next 17 years in a refugee camp with few educational opportunities. 

Fataki arrived in the U.S. with his family as a refugee in 2014 and moved to Kansas City in 2015. He said he spoke “little to no English.”

By 2016, he not only had graduated from East High School but was preparing for college. He now has a degree from Missouri Western State University, where he also served as the student body president. 

Engoma Fataki, a former Kansas City Public Schools student and current employee who arrived in the U.S. a refugee, speaks during an open house at the district’s new International Welcome Center for students who are recent immigrants. 

Fataki works for KCPS as an interpreter and liaison, and he told his story to the crowd of KCPS staff, school board members, Missouri legislators, community partners and media during the Welcome Center open house. 

“I felt a sense of belonging, because I had the support and understanding of my teachers in the classroom,” he said of his education. 

Fataki described the Welcome Center as a place where students can learn “without holding back.” He said he used to refrain from sharing ideas because he was worried he would misspeak and people would laugh. 

“We are here to get them ready so they can be successful in their classrooms,” he said. 

The special needs of Kansas City’s refugee and immigrant students

The International Welcome Center is focused on helping younger students in kindergarten through sixth grade and their families. 

Older students with similar backgrounds are placed in “sheltered” classrooms in their home schools, where teachers with expertise in English language learners as well as the subject matter prepare them to be in a “mainstream” classroom, Hile said. 

Welcome Center students are bussed to the building at 711 Woodland Ave. for half of the school day. They spend the rest of the day in their home school, Hile said. 

The center provides intensive help for students to work on their English listening and speaking skills, as well as literacy and math, Hile said. “Not being tied to a building plan or schedule or bells really allows us to be flexible for what students need.” 

Engoma Fataki, Allyson Hile and Superintendent Mark Bedell of Kansas City Public Schools cut a ribbon alongside Jewish Vocational Service Executive Director Hilary Cohen Singer at a ceremony to celebrate KCPS’ new International Welcome Center. (Zach Bauman/The Beacon)

Who counts as a “newcomer” can also be flexible. The program currently includes students who arrived in late 2019 because of the disruptions to normal learning caused by COVID-19. 

The center also consolidates resources such as counseling and parent liaisons. 

For example, in one office students can attend play therapy. In the library, families can gather to enroll children and receive information in their native language.

Another room houses a rack of coats and neat stacks of baby clothes — donations from community partners or school staff that are available for families who need them. 

Preparing for an increase in refugee students

Refugee resettlement in Missouri is starting to rebound after plunging due to lower caps during President Donald Trump’s administration and pandemic travel restrictions. 

Jewish Vocational Service, one of the major Kansas City-area resettlement agencies, is planning to work with up to 700 people this year. 

Della Lamb, a community services group that resettles fewer families, has already seen numbers nearly double from the 2019-20 fiscal year to the most recent fiscal year, according to data provided by Danilo Aguilar, refugee services director. 

Aguilar said he sees refugee children with different levels of education, sometimes depending on the country they come from.

For example, in African refugee camps “there is some education,” but students often don’t reach a high grade level. 

For refugees from Afghanistan who come to the U.S. through Turkey — common among KC refugees even before the current crisis — families may have lived in a city and participated in its education system. 

A sign welcoming refugees in the hallway of Kansas City Public Schools’ new International Welcome Center is pictured during an open house to celebrate the opening of the center for recently arrived immigrants who have had disrupted formal education. (Zach Bauman/The Beacon)

“It’s not a complete education because of the circumstances that they’re coming from,” Aguilar said. 

Aguilar said the wraparound services KCPS provides are important for children trying to transition to U.S. culture and language. 

More than 55 first languages are spoken by KCPS students, with some speaking multiple languages, Hile said. The district is constantly in search of interpreters like Fataki and paraprofessionals who speak different languages. 

On the same day of the Welcome Center open house, Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas announced on Twitter that a family from Afghanistan had arrived — marking the first members of a group of 550 evacuees coming to Kansas City in the wake of the U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan. 

While not all immigrant students will be in the new center, the program extends a message to all newcomers, Hile said. 

“It is a 60,000-square-foot welcome mat to refugee and immigrant families coming into our city and schools, and we are going to work alongside them as they write their American story.”

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Maria Benevento

Maria Benevento is the education reporter at The Kansas City Beacon. She is a Report for America corps member.