Principal of St. Louis school for immigrant, refugee children: ‘We can be an example of world peace' | St. Louis Public Radio

Principal of St. Louis school for immigrant, refugee children: ‘We can be an example of world peace'

Sep 7, 2016

Donnie Harris is the principal of Nahed Chapman New American Academy, located at 1530 S. Grand in the City of St. Louis. The school opened in 2009 as an “International Welcome School,” which provides a safe environment for immigrants and refugee students who have low formal education and struggle with limited English and, for some, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

The school has 300 students from 24 different countries.

On Wednesday’s St. Louis on the Air, we heard from Harris about the school, its students and recent developments with a soccer field there.Donnie Harris is the principal of Nahed Chapman New American Academy, located at 1530 S. Grand in the City of St. Louis. The school opened in 2009 as an “International Welcome School,” which provides a safe environment for immigrants and refugee students who have low formal education and struggle with limited English and, for some, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

On Wednesday’s St. Louis on the Air, we heard from Harris about the school and recent developments with a soccer field there.

Students who come to the New American Academy often come when they are older, making it a challenge to bring English language skills up to par in time for graduation. Pile on top of that challenges with changing countries, leaving family and friends behind and adjusting to the U.S. culture and students can have quite a rough go of it at first.

What’s interesting, however, is how little problems the school has with children of different backgrounds getting along.

“I tell my children every day that we can be the example of world peace: people from all different parts of the world living in peace and harmony,” Harris said. “We talk about unity, oneness, coming here to have a better way of life. Whatever was going on back home, leave it back home for a better life. There are opportunities and choices here. We talk brotherhood and sisterhood. It doesn’t matter your language, what country you came from, the color of your skin, your religion … be positive is be positive. Children come together. I have pictures of friends from all different countries.”

Most teachers at the school are certified English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) teachers and they teach students with a wide range of abilities in any given classroom. For example, a student who had never been in an academic setting or had their education interrupted would be in the same classroom as someone who had uninterrupted schooling.

“It’s done through differentiated groups,” Harris said. “Within one classroom, I may have six different instructional groups. Our goal is that every student will learn, every student will achieve … we’re looking for progress, it doesn’t matter where you are: are you progressing?”

The school also uses trauma-informed teaching to help those students, perhaps from war-torn areas, deal with PTSD or other mental health issues.

Recently, several partners joined together to donate a $200,000 soccer field to the school, which previously had no outdoor area for play and only one physical education teacher. Several local construction companies, as well as the St. Louis Mosaic Project, joined together to raise the funds.

For students coming from 24 different countries, not speaking the same language or sharing cultural customs, the soccer field will be helpful in providing an area of play for students to share a common language: soccer.

“Soccer is a world language,” said Harris. “If you play soccer, it doesn’t matter what language, what religion: you can play that. Getting out and having a safe space to play, especially in middle school and high school, is especially important.”

Next week, on Sept. 13, the school will host a field dedication and ribbon cutting from 4:30-7:30 p.m. More information on that event is available here.

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary Edwards, Alex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.