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Editor’s Note: This is the second of two stories examining various efforts to narrow the achievement gap among the growing numbers of Micronesian students in Arkansas and Hawaii.
SPRINGDALE, Arkansas — It’s 8:45 a.m., nearly an hour into the school day, and the fifth-grader, his backpack slouched over his shoulders, sits on the red couch by the principal’s office of Monitor Elementary School, staring at the floor.
The Marshallese student has been called in to the office because of an incident on the school bus this morning that involved a sharp object and a scratched-up seat. He’s joined by his father, who’s seated at a corner table and wearing a stern expression.
Carlnis Jerry, a Marshallese liaison for the school, appears in the office and speaks to the older man in their native language, explaining the situation and what the school plans to do. The student was told to get his breakfast and go back to class.
Soon, Jerry gets busy with her next task: explaining to colleagues in the registrar’s office why at least 10 kids — all Marshallese — are absent that day.
“They’re all out. They don’t usually miss,” a staffer points out.
Clad in blue jeans, sneakers and a T-shirt that says, “Monitor Crew: Marshallese Liaison,” Jerry works the office phone and comes up with the answer: there was a recent elder death in the Marshallese community and all the kids are attending the funeral today.
Small discoveries such as this might seem like a fairly routine part of a regular school day.
But at Monitor Elementary, this kind of information represents a breakthrough.
Funding for this story was provided by the Solutions Journalism Network, which supports reporting on how communities are responding to critical issues.
Funding for this story was provided by the Solutions Journalism Network, which supports reporting on how communities are responding to critical issues.
As in Hawaii, the number of Marshallese students in Springdale has grown rapidly, especially in the last five years: Pacific Islanders total nearly 3,000, or about 12 percent of the district’s 21,500 students.
The challenges in this land-locked Arkansas community are also similar to Hawaii’s. Pacific Islander students in Springdale lag behind in state standardized testing, have lower graudation rates and are frequently absent or tardy. And the district has difficulty reaching Marshallese parents who don’t speak English.
Through the use of school liaisons such as Jerry and other efforts, Springdale’s public schools have embarked on an ambitious district-wide effort to reach its growing population of Marshallese students, and their families, that might hold lessons for places like Hawaii.
As much as focusing on what’s happening in the actual classroom, the district’s efforts are centered around building relationship with kids and their parents.
That includes holding after-school programs where English Language Learners from Micronesia can shoot hoops while practicing conversational English; fostering cultural activities like a “Stomp Team”; and hosting Parents’ Nights geared specifically toward Marshallese parents.
“It’s really been a phenomenal experience,” said Jim Rollins, the school superintendent of 36 years. “The Marshallese culture and Marshallese people are just beautiful people — enjoyable, fun-loving. That’s certainly the case with the kids we see in all of our schools. We’re building a good relationship with moms and dads.”
This small, rural town in northwest Arkansas, dubbed by state lawmakers as “The Poultry Capital of the World,” is a far cry from the shimmering seas and tropical climate of the Pacific Islands.
But drawn by the abundance of work in places like Tyson Foods, which is headquartered here, and a growing Marshallese community, large numbers of Marshallese have been moving here over the last decade. It helps that the cost of living is low and that the school system has a good reputation.
“When I ask our (Marshallese) parents why they came to Springdale, the first answer is, because of education,” said Marsha Layer, the school district’s family and community partnership coordinator.
In addition to the Marshallese, a growing number of families have migrated over from the Federated States of Micronesia — Chuuk, Pohnpei, Koshrae and Yap — under the 1986 Compact of Free Association, a treaty that allows residents of the Marshall Islands, FSM and Palau to enter the U.S. visa-free and without limitation, in exchange for U.S. military presence in those places.
COFA migrants have settled in Hawaii and Guam and on the mainland in states like California, Oregon, Washington and Arkansas.
In Springdale, the adjustment in the classroom remains a challenge.
Math and English literacy among Marshallese students trailed other student groups between 2007 and 2011, according to Springdale’s 2013 grant application for federal funding. Federal data from 2015-16 also shows that Pacific Islanders in Springdale comprise just 3 percent of gifted and talented enrollment and made up a fourth of all students held back a grade level.
Pacific Islanders also showed low enrollment in STEM classes like calculus, chemistry or physics, and represented just 6 percent of SAT or ACT participation district-wide in 2015-16.
Many Pacific Islander students in Springdale have come to the U.S. recently, some without their parents to live with relatives in hopes for a better future. Other students were born here and have never been to their parents’ homeland: they haven’t been swimming in the ocean, tasted breadfruit or breathed in the salty air back on the islands.
One of the main challenges for newer arrivals is adjusting to the structure of an American school day, say administrators.
In the Marshall Islands, “if you’re late, you’re late,” Jerry, the Marshallese liaison, said. “We don’t call your parents. As long as you show up, you’re good. School was for fun in the islands. If you’re late and you’re missing a lot of school, they don’t call your parents and they don’t look for you.”
There is also a significant language gap, something the schools here first experienced with the wave of Hispanic immigrants in the late 1990s. Just 30 years ago, the school district was 98 percent Caucasian. Today, Hispanic students comprise 47 percent and white students 34.5 percent of the total K-12 enrollment. Forty-three languages are now spoken in the schools.
Signage in schools reflects that language diversity. Posters asking “Are you being hurt?” or “Please ring bell for entrance” are displayed in English, Spanish and Marshallese. A row of colorful clocks outside an ELL classroom shows what time it is in the Marshall Islands, in addition to other places like Mexico, El Salvador and Myanmar.
With 45 percent of the student body now English Language Learners, the school district is pouring more resources into ELL learning. Out of the total education budget of $220 million, the district now spends $4.7 million on ELL, according to Springdale schools spokesman Rick Schaeffer.
Jerry, an energetic 35-year-old mother with an infectious laugh, moved to Arkansas in 2010 by way of Honolulu, where she was a student at Leeward Community College.
As one of 12 Marshallese liaisons in the Springdale school system, Jerry divides her time between two schools with a high concentration of Marshallese students. She makes home visits, calls parents of absent kids, attends parent nights to facilitate translation and serves as a familiar resource to those in the community.
She also serves as a mentor to young Marshallese students at a pivotal point in their youth, sitting and having lunch with fifth-grade girls a couple times a week at Parson Hills Elementary to hear what’s on their minds.
Over a school lunch of pepperoni pizza, apple slices and chocolate milk in February, Jerry and three girls sat around a circular table in a large storage room off the main cafeteria.
They spoke in a mix of Marshallese and English about topics ranging from volleyball to reading to why one of the girls didn’t want to apply to be in the school’s gifted-and-talented program.
“They love it, they have someone to trust, and someone to talk to,” Jerry said. “They trust all the people here, but to understand the background, the culture and the language and why their parents are doing what they’re doing, that situation, I think (this) helps too.”
At other schools, administrators say they’re learning as much about Pacific Islander culture as their students are learning about the U.S.
At Lee Elementary, where a quarter of the student body is Micronesian and come from the Marshall Islands, Chuuk, Yap, Pohnpei and Kiribati, a group known as “Stomp Club” is garnering ELL kids the rock star treatment.
It started when Deanna Self, the school’s ESL/Instructional Language Facilitator, noticed several Marshallese boys engaging in a rhythmic pattern of hand and feet movements on the playground.
Self asked what they were doing. She persuaded the boys to do a five-second stomp demo for other students, who “just loved it, they just went crazy,” she said.
Lee Elementary’s popular Stomp Team performs at school events and posts their performances on YouTube. Students at other schools want to emulate them.
The jury’s still out on whether these activities translate to academic success down the road.
But it’s laying a foundation for more inclusion, which could translate to better attendance, according to teachers.
“I think it just makes them feel more confident,” Self said. “When we come up on the stage for monthly assembly, I feel like I’m escorting rock stars up here.”
“That’s one of our core beliefs: building relationships with students,” Lee Elementary Principal Justin Swope said. “We know that that’s going to culturally connect kids, and it makes them want to come to school.”
Lee Elementary also offers a twice weekly after-school program called “Language and Layups” where ELL kids from Micronesia join instructor Zac Goatly in the gym, racing up and down the length of the court, practicing basketball drills, until the coach gathers them in the center and gets their English language skills warmed up as well.
He asks them to shout out sentences with a noun and verb, then build upon that with an adjective, or a more evocative verb.
This style of instruction is important, said Goatly, an educator who moved to Arkansas from South Carolina last year‚ since it emphasizes more conversational dialogue, combining it with something that interests the kids.
“I really want to stress authentic communication as opposed to just, ‘Today, the objective is this,’” he said. “That’s not really how life works.”
Community members are taking notice of the broader impact of such initiatives. Sheldon Riklon, a Marshallese physician and assistant professor at the University of Arkansas who moved here from Wahiawa in Honolulu a year ago, said there’s an openness to the town and its newest arrivals.
“The community of Marshallese here seems to be well-integrated, more here than what I found back in Hawaii,” he said. “There was us wanting to be part of the community (in Hawaii), but there is also the community having some pushback as far as us being part of it. You still have that sense that you’re not always welcome.
“I haven’t seen that here.”
It’s 7 p.m. on a Tuesday evening.
About a dozen Marshallese parents are sitting at desks in a carpeted classroom at Monitor Elementary, whose students are more than a quarter Pacific Islander and 98 percent low-income. They’re here for “Marshallese Parents’ Night,” led by school resource officer Robert Aini — the town’s second-ever Marshallese police officer — and Jerry.
The discussion goes beyond school talk. Speaking in Marshallese, Aini informs the parents on the law surrounding the use of car seats for young children, the process for obtaining driver’s licenses and the legal implications of domestic abuse. The school provides dinner — sandwiches, chips and cookies.
Melissa Fink, the school’s principal, said it took some time to convince Marshallese parents to show up for the event. But her staff learned that a little persistence goes a long way.
“When we want them to come, a personal invitation is better than just sending a note home,” she said. “We knock on the door and send out a card and personally invite parents to come, making personal phone calls when we can’t knock on doors.”
The district also hosts a district-wide monthly event called “Patron Shelf,” geared toward Hispanic and Marshallese parents of grade K-5 kids. The program loops parents in on what their kids are learning and it’s also a chance for administrators to hear what’s on their minds.
At the first Patron Shelf back in December, administrators asked, what could we be doing better as a school district for your children, and what programs would you like to see in place?
“This one (Marshallese) gentleman spoke up and said, ‘We have no idea how to get our children to college.’ So the next meeting was all about college,” said Layer, the family and community partnership coordinator.
“Lots of people mentioned they want their children to go to college, that they want their children to be contributors not just to the Marshallese but the Springdale community.”
Improving college attendance is a key priority for the school district. In 2010, 31 students of Marshallese and Pacific Islander descent were eligible to graduate from high school. Just six enrolled in college, according to the National Student Clearinghouse.
By 2017, the number of Marshallese and Pacific Islander students eligible to graduate from high school grew to 130 students. But only nine went on to enroll in college.
District-wide, the graduation rate among all students in 2016 was 87 percent.
Today, there are only about 30 to 40 Marshallese students from Springdale enrolled in any kind of college, according to Benetick Maddison, a student at Northwest Arkansas Community College who launched the Marshallese College Student Association in September 2014 to encourage more college enrollment and retention.
“It’s a community effort. If one piece of the puzzle is not on board, we’re going to see little to no success so everybody’s got to get on board,” including parents, said Maddison, who was born in Majuro and came to Arkansas when he was just a little boy.
Not every parent-centered program Springdale has attempted has stuck with Marshallese families.
That includes Family Literacy, a program where non-English speaking parents attend their kids’ school four days a week to learn English and read with their child. Launched at three local schools through a national grant underwritten by Toyota a decade ago, the initiative has since expanded to 16 schools throughout Springdale.
The program has gained traction with Hispanic parents, but has been slower to reach the Marshallese parents.
“It was sparsely attended,” Swope, Lee Elementary’s principal, said. “I could not get parents to consistently attend or commit to coming.”
At Har-Ber High School one afternoon, no students showed up at an informational session on how to apply to college through federal student aid. (There was also a misunderstanding over the date and time). Stacks of delivered pizza sat unopened on a desk, the aroma wafting through the classroom, as several teachers waited around.
Pacific Islander high schoolers have a mix of ambitions, depending on their backgrounds, and they range from returning to the islands or staying in Springdale and making the most out of their time here.
Ruthan Juonran, a 10th-grade ELL student at Springdale High who moved to Arkansas from the Marshall Islands when he was about 6, returned home briefly only to come back to take care of his grandfather.
Although the teen said he likes Springdale for people’s “kindness,” he said he misses the beach, climbing coconut trees and chasing after chickens. He eventually wants to go back to the Marshall Islands after he graduates to teach English and math.
Springdale High senior Clanton River, 18, has plans to attend college in the U.S. to help out his family.
“My main motivation is my family. I just want them to be better and well-off,” he said. “I can see how hard-working my mom and dad is for us to have better lives. I just want to give back to them, too.”
The awareness of Marshallese students — and their culture — has permeated the district in various ways.
Two Caucasian high schoolers from the Don Tyson School of Innovation decided to do a junior-year project on the tragic history of U.S. nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands following World War II.
“The Marshall Islands Bombing undeniably displays this years (sic) theme, ‘Conflict and Compromise,'” the students wrote in their paper. “The people never gave up on trying to live on their islands again and to teach their children the traditions they had growing up. The U.S. has taken much from them but they have gotten little back.”
Read a profile of one of Springdale’s Marshallese tutors and community liaisons.
• Hear more from inside Springdale schools in Episode 7 of On Campus — a special audio reporting project from Civil Beat that tracks the first year of a new school in Hawaii and examines big education issues in America.
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