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International Welcome School deals with academics, adjustment and trauma

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 4, 2010 - Students at the International Welcome School in south St. Louis have to worry about more than their ABCs -- often, they have to cope with PTSD as well.

With about 200 students from a couple of dozen countries, ranging in age from 5 to 18, the students may be refugees, forced to leave their homelands for fear of violence or persecution, or they may be immigrants whose relocation was prompted by more tranquil circumstances.

Whether or not they need to recover from post-traumatic stress disorder, they enter the school at 3125 S. Kingshighway with three tasks ahead of them: mastering English, learning basic academic content and adjusting to the life in their new home.

For a school system with more than its share of bad times and bad press in recent years, the goals and successes of the International Welcome School are a true reason to be proud, says Nahed Chapman, director for the English for speakers of other languages program.

"On a daily basis," she says, "the St. Louis Public Schools opens its doors to the children of the world."


Chapman herself came to the United States from Cairo, Egypt, where she met and married a U.S. Marine. She came here with a good education, and no traumatic circumstances accompanied her relocation, but she says she still felt a loss of culture that didn't disappear overnight.

"Countries have a certain smell, a certain feel about them," she said. "It takes time. Now, this is home. St. Louis is home."


To help ease that transition for the newcomers she has worked with since the 1980s, Chapman wanted to create a special place where children could become comfortable in their new lives without adding to the stress they had already endured.

A few years ago, she began researching other cities to see which might have such a school. She found one in Columbus, Ohio, and worked with the Center for Applied Linguistics in Washington, which has been involved with orientation and education for refugees for more than 30 years.

The city schools started out small, with centers at Sigel, Bunche, Blow and Roosevelt, with about 60 students each, learning how to tweak the best way to introduce newcomers to American language, customs and education. Then, after Kelvin Adams became superintendent, Chapman asked him whether the students could have a school of their own.

With a tone of wonder in her voice she recalled his immediate reply.

"He said, 'Why not? Gifted students have their own school. Why not refugees?' I thought I was dreaming."

Chapman recruited a staff of more than a dozen teachers, all certified in teaching English as a second language. She worked with Webster University to train teachers and has worked with a variety of social service agencies -- International Institute, Catholic Charities, Human Development Corporation -- to provide the types of non-educational support that families need.

Now, she says, there is no problem finding qualified staff -- "They're homegrown," Chapman explains -- and with the existence and the advantages of the school spreading through word of mouth, recruitment is not a problem.

"We're known in the refugee camps of Kenya," Chapman said proudly.

The result, she said, has been a situation where children born thousands of miles apart learn to live and live to learn as Americans without having to abandon culturally what they may have been forced to leave behind physically.

"It view it as a golden opportunity," she said. "We each see weaknesses in our own culture, and we can shed that and we can fuse what is good there with what is good here. The important thing is not to make people afraid that one culture will overtake the other. You can choose."

Summing up the goal in one short phrase, Chapman added: "We created stability."




Such stability isn't easy to come by in any setting, but mix together a wide range of languages, nationalities, ages and backgrounds and the equation at times can seem like magic.

The halls of the International Welcome School are brightly decorated, with lots of evidence of art and culture from the students' native lands. But in terms of behavior, the school is all business.



Students wear uniforms -- white or blue shirts, dark blue pants -- that Chapman says help to emphasize equality and leave no doubt about what is right and what is wrong. "The code of conduct is very clear," she said.

For a time, she noted, Fridays were declared to be no-uniform days, but the variety proved to be too confusing for the parents, so now, every day, the school is blue and white and -- for the most part -- calm all over.

Dressing students all alike is easy, of course. Dealing with the variety of customs, languages and experiences that the students bring to the school can be daunting.

One solution, Chapman says, is the use of a teaching philosophy that uses art, music and nature to help students learn and not just depend on language. Technology also helps, as evidenced by a dozen or so students parked at computers in the school's central commons area, using the Rosetta Stone program to assimilate English into their lives.

Samir Mujagic, who came to St. Louis from Bosnia and works with the technology, says the computer program helps one teacher reach many students at the same time.

"The teacher doesn't have to say it 20 times," Mujagic explained. "They can see it for themselves."

But the human element is evident as well. Rebecca McCarthy, the first-grade teacher, has students who speak nine different languages. How can you get across to them the concepts they need to learn?

Start with set rules, a defined daily routine, and draw pictures of what you want them to do.

"It's a lot of repetition, a lot of modeling," McCarthy said. "I make sure I speak as slowly and as clearly as I can. Eventually, they pick it up.

"You just keep going over and over it. All of our brains are wired to learn language. We just don't. They're young enough to be able to do it."

In some cases, students have learned a lot in their native land; their big challenge is translating that knowledge into English. But for others, class at the International Welcome School is the first formal education they have ever had.

"You may be trying to teach an 11-year-old how to hold a pen," Chapman notes.

Fifth-grade teacher Barbara Chiodini says it's all about finding the key to making their experience in their old home make sense in their new one.

"Once you tap into what they already know," she said, making a rocket noise, "they take off. They're ready. It's just building that bridge so they know how to do it English."

Depending on the speed of their progress, students may spend up to two years at the welcome school. But that doesn't mean they are thrust into a regular class when they leave. They will end up at schools with centers for students whose first language is not English, for continued help in completing their transition.

"We don't just send them out to nowhere." Chapman said.

And support from their peers doesn't hurt, either. Even before the language barrier falls, emotional bonds begin to form.

Mujagic says students from different cultures can create their own world.

"They can hardly communicate with each other," he says, "but they're best friends."


But new friends may not be enough for children -- or their parents -- whose experiences have left wounds hard to heal.

One woman who was leaving Iraq, with helicopters hovering overhead, told Chapman how she had two children in her arms and another clinging to her skirt that she lost track of and never saw again.

A Bosnian woman who was baking bread on a Sunday when her village was attacked was forced to abandon everything and stuff whatever she could into one suitcase before she could flee. "Think of that," Chapman said. "One suitcase. What are you going to grab?"

Sadly, their stories are not unique. Many of the children at the International Welcome School have been displaced by war, suffered from discrimination and been exposed to a tragic series of traumatic situations. Their last home -- or even their first one -- may have been a refugee camp. Such a history makes the most simple adjustments difficult, let alone learning in a new country in a new language.

"A lot of the kids have been exposed to the death of their father or other adults in their lives," said Maria Childress, a social worker at the school.

"One of the wonderful things about the welcome school is the consistency and the nurturing that they get here."

She said each ethnic group has a personality of its own and some may be able to adjust more quickly than another, though she did not want to discuss examples or generalities for fear she would end up engaging in unfair stereotyping.

Even the families that have made the journey to St. Louis willingly, after careful planning and financial saving, need to get used to a whole new way of life. For those whose relocation is forced, the transition is much harder.

"The families are grateful to be here because it gives them a new life," Childress said. "But they are forced to leave their own country, their own language, their own culture. There is always a sense of great loss.

"A child who is dealing with invasive memories and a lot of anxiety is not going to be able to take in a lot of new information. We see dealing with emotional issues as preparing them for learning."

In detail

Countries most represented:







Languages most commonly spoken:




Kunama (spoken in Eritrea)



Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.

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