SPRINGDALE, Arkansas — The kid in the red sweatshirt runs up to Chris Timos as he steps through the front door of Elmdale Elementary School.
The student, Joshua, has been waiting all morning to tell Timos the names of the kids interested in forming a “Stomp Team.”
It was the tutor, after all, who encouraged Joshua to bring the popular step-dancing activity into the school. A simple suggestion perhaps, but one that goes a long way toward making Marshallese students like Joshua realize they and their culture have a place here.
“One day, I’m not kidding you. Already, one day, I saw an impact. Just his presence — the kids, they’re curious (about Timos),” Michelle Hutton, Elmdale’s principal, said.
Timos, 20, is a Marshallese-American tutor in the Springdale school system whose ability to straddle both cultures is a huge asset to teachers and students alike as the district experiences a large increase of students from the Pacific Islands.
He’s helping the growing influx of Marshallese students and kids from the Federated States of Micronesia with schoolwork and classroom assignments so they don’t fall behind.
“Some students have trouble with reading, some students have trouble with writing and some of the kids just need someone to talk to,” Timos said.
Born and raised in Springdale, Timos is a product of the region’s public schools and is now a student at Northwest Arkansas Community College working toward an associate’s degree in nursing. He intends to switch to education, earn his masters’ degree and eventually become a teacher in Springdale.
Timos says he didn’t have a full command of English until he graduated from junior high, because his family mainly spoke Marshallese at home.
“Help like this wasn’t provided to us when I was growing up,” he said. “We didn’t have any Marshallese students coming by and saying, ‘I’m going to help you.’ I feel I have a soft spot for these little kids because I struggled with math, with reading, and was in English language development.
“And here I am now, teaching them.”
Many of the newer arrivals to the Springdale public schools are English Language Learners, behind grade level in reading or math and thrust into an education system that’s more structured and results-driven than they are accustomed to on their home islands in the Pacific.
There is also the challenge of cultural familiarity. Though the Marshallese make up 12 percent of the Springdale student body, there is only one full-time Marshallese teacher in the entire district.
Diversifying staff is a priority, though, and Springdale schools are turning to Marshallese instructional assistants and liaisons to bridge the cultural gap. Har-Ber High School, for instance, has on staff Kemram Olson, a Marshallese instructional assistant who works with ESL students.
Tutors like Timos are also helping smooth the way.
He works at Elmdale Elementary — which is about 9 percent Marshallese, according to the principal — three days a week. By his second day on the job back in February, he was already a friendly, familiar face to students.
“See you, bro,” a Marshallese second grader named Fredison said, as he gave Timos a departing hug.
In his free time, Timos enjoys hanging out with friends, hiking in the Ozarks, participating in his church youth group, or listening remotely to Honolulu’s reggae station — he spent a year on Oahu during high school. He has a talent for photography, shooting high school proms, weddings for the local Marshallese community, and “kemen,” the Marshallese first birthday celebration.
Family is never very far from his conscience.
Encircling his wrist, in fact, is a band inscribed with “Mejenea,” a hybrid of the names of his maternal grandfather, Mejbon, and his grandmother, Jenea, who lives in the Marshall Islands. In Arkansas, he lives with his two sisters and paternal grandparents in a house near the school, rising before 6 a.m. on the days he tutors.
On the walls of the living room are framed family photos and traditional Marshallese woven pieces. A large stand-alone cooler by the kitchen stores fish and pounded breadfruit from the Marshall Islands, where many of Timos’ family members live.
His room — his refuge away from the din of the household — is where he catches up on school work, listens to Marshallese Christian music or reads Bible verses before he sleeps.
“My room, that space is enough for me,” he said. “It’s me time when I’m there.”
On a mid-February morning, Timos arrives at Elmdale and receives a sheet of paper listing the kids he’ll be working with that day. “Mrs. Casey’s class has several kiddos that would benefit from your positive influence,” the sheet states.
Timos goes in and out of classrooms to find the students. Teachers look up and smile as he walks in. They know to expect him.
First up is Ioane, a young boy who needs help with math. They sit in the empty school cafeteria following the noisy morning breakfast rush.
“You’re trying to get “r” by itself. What do you have to do to get “r” by itself?” Timos asks the young boy. “The opposite of division. So what’s the opposite? What do you think?”
Several seconds go by as the kid taps his pencil on the desk.
“If adding is the opposite of subtraction, what is the opposite of division?” Timos says.
“Times?” the boy replies, as Timos nods.
Next stop is the school library to tutor Martha, a Marshallese third grader, in reading. They will read a book Timos checked out from the school library about the Marshall Islands titled, “Island of the Invisible Being: Benjua’s Story.”
The richly-illustrated book is about a woman who is a skillful basket weaver. Timos asks Martha whether she’s ever been to the Marshall Islands. She has not.
“We use these baskets to welcome people when they come to our islands,” Timos explains. “We put food in it, like fish and coconut but they’re already cooked.”
He describes breadfruit: “We usually eat this with fried fish or fish we cook on rocks,” he says. “What we usually do with breadfruit is, we wrap it in tin foil, aluminum foil, and we cook it on rocks, or under rocks. Breadfruit is something you eat back on the islands.”
Martha smiles and nods.
Timos still has “Island of the Invisible Being” in his book bag by the time he meets with 8-year-olds Jesse Latdrik and Ricky Joran in Lisa Casey’s second-grade class. The faces of the two young boys light up as Timos shows them the cover: a woman in a traditional dress leaning against a coconut tree by the beach.
It’s soon lunchtime. Timos promises he’ll come find the boys in the cafeteria so they can continue reading the book.
Jesse and Ricky, now joined by Fredison, sit at a round table in the back of the cafeteria, the boys continuing to devour the illustrations while munching on their school lunch of hamburger, carrots and fat-free chocolate milk.
“You can eat and drink from a coconut. Isn’t that cool?” Timos tells them. He asks them what they thought about the book. They all enthusiastically express their approval.
It’s soon time for the boys to head back to class. After dropping off his lunch tray, Fredison comes back to Timos and gives him a hug.
“It’s awesome,” said Casey, of Timos’ presence here.
“The biggest thing is to have the connection to home. (The kids) talk about the Marshall Islands. Now they have somebody, a grownup, who speaks English, is not their parent and is somebody outside that box that has a connection.”
Timos knows it may take a while for the kids to feel totally comfortable with him. But he may not need to wait very long.
“I think it’s what I wanna do,” he said, of becoming a teacher. “And we need it.”
• 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.