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Guymon Public Schools Experiences Immigrant Influx, and Adapts

In Guymon, Oklahoma—way out on the panhandle—a major influx of immigrants has caused the school district to build a new school. It’s essentially an elementary school for teenagers, because many of these newcomers aren’t even fluent in their own native language.

For years, Guymon, Oklahoma has been a hub for Mexican immigrants. There’s a pork processing plant in town, and the immigrants could find work there. This influx overflowed in to the schools, which are currently about 70 percent Hispanic.

But about two years ago, immigrants started coming from elsewhere; Honduras, Guatemala, Africa, and Burma.

"We speak 27 languages in Guymon," said Julie Edenborough, the Director of Migrant Services for the Guymon Public School District.

Edenborough said many of these people were kids that came alone and were escaping civil wars.

When they arrived in America, charities sent them to Guymon, because they knew they could find work. Many, also, already had family there.

Edenborough said the district has always taught non-English speakers, but the new students were different. Many of them couldn't read or write, because they hadn’t been to school since they were 10, and they’re now 15 or 16.

"And so making the connection between literacy in English, and literacy in their native language doesn’t exist because they didn’t read in their native language," she said.

As the Title III Director, Edenborough is in charge of figuring out how to educate all the newcomers that don’t speak English. At first, she said they were putting them in sheltered classes with other non-English speakers, but they soon realized that wasn't enough. 

"It was mainstream teachers going… 'Ah, gee, I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what to do with a student that can’t read.'"

So this year they built the Newcomer's Center. It's for students that have been in America less than a year, and have a two to seven year gap in their education. Edenborough said they looked to Garden City, Kansas for ideas on how to structure the center, because Garden City is dealing with a similar influx.

Edenborough said the $250,000 for the school came out of the district's building funds. They also get some extra money from the federal government to help with the costs of instruction.

The newcomer center is a portable building on the school grounds. It’s nothing fancy, but it’s a place for these kids to soak up the basics.

Kim Lively is the math teacher for the center. She was an elementary school teacher with experience teaching older kids. Which is just what the center needed.

"Most of them can add and subtract, but they don’t know their facts at all..," she said.

Lively just started teaching them what 2 x 6 is. 

She uses a lot of hand gestures, facial expressions, Google Translate, and of course, repetition, to communicate with her students.

The center has a Spanish interpreter, but Lively tries not to use her, because she wants the kids to learn English. Plus many of the students speak a tribal language that the interpreter doesn’t know.

Regardless of the communication barrier, Lively said the kids are making good progress.

"When we started this program, we came in to this believing that we would probably be teaching numbers, colors, shapes," she said. "Its so much far from that."

The English teacher, Pam Halliburton, started the year with phonics, but just ended her lesson on prepositions last week. She said her students are now writing in complete sentences.

"Yeah, they capitalize, they put periods, they write, 'The pencil is on the table.' I never thought I would get to that! I thought maybe the end of the year, but for the first nine weeks... I think if you push them it’s what you expect of them," she said.

The goal is to have the newcomers reading by a third grade level, and to give them a sixth grade background in math by the end of the first year. Then next year, they’ll spend more time in sheltered classes at the high school.

The ultimate goal is to get them to graduate with a high school diploma, which Julie Edenborough admits will be a struggle. They have until age 21 to graduate.

"We’re working to get them there, but it’s going to be very difficult," she said.

Edenborough says even if the students don’t graduate, the district still wants them to know that education is important, and to leave with a good attitude about school.

"And so we really want to give them as much as we can so that they know they were valued, and that their children will be valued, and be able to benefit from free and appropriate education."

Emily Wendler was KOSU's education reporter from 2015 to 2019.
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