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Helping schools bridge cross-cultural divides

Linda-Bland

The baggage that comes with feeling new and out of place in a foreign milleu is heavy, especially for children who can’t communicate with their peers in the United States.

Having experienced feeling like an outsider during their required cross-culturals, dozens of EMU grads employed by Harrisonburg City schools are using their cross-cultural sensitivity in support of the schools’ 36% of students from homes where 50 languages other than English are spoken.

Alexis Rutt ’06, MEd ’11, for example, works with the schools’ Newcomer Program. The program began in 2006, in response to the influx of immigrant children entering area schools with little-to-no English language skills.

“These kids are amazing,” Rutt says of the 25 current Newcomer Program middle school students, representing eight countries and speaking five languages. Some are part of the Refugee Resettlement Program and have lived through unimaginable atrocities, she says. “They aren’t victims… They keep showing up, eager to learn and grateful for what they’ve been given. Every day in the classroom is an exercise in humility for me.”

Rutt says her cross-cultural experiences in New Zealand and Fiji were transformative, helping her to be welcoming to people from other cultures.

During his cross-cultural in Guatemala, Adam Shank ’06 lived in the home country of many who had family members in the United States, making him aware that these immigrants left their homeland for “basically the same reasons that my ancestors did hundreds of years ago.”

Shank combined this experience with a double major in justice, peace and conflict studies and Spanish, and spent three years in Nicaragua as a Mennonite Central Committee volunteer. He then resettled in Harrisonburg to work with the Latino population. As the homeschool liaison for Smithland and Waterman Elementary schools, he works with students and parents to foster relationships between school and home.

Gary Painter, who has hired many EMU alumni since he started working as a Harrisonburg school administrator in 1999, recognizes cultural empathy as an educator’s asset. The cross-cultural experience bolsters a graduate’s odds of being hired, and reinforces their success with non-Western learners once in the classroom, he says.

Rutt and Shank are two of the over 40 EMU alumni working in cultural diversity roles in Harrisonburg City Schools: 26 ESL teachers, two ESL instructional coaches, two ESL specialists, and a dozen home-school liaisons.

Harrisonburg’s city schools have fully embraced addressing the needs of students who arrive speaking a language other than English. But back in the 1990s, this was not the case when Linda Bland ’64 was asked to expand her role as a reading supervisor to encompass foreign language and English as a second language programs.

Then-ESL teacher Jeremy Aldrich, now Harrisonburg schools’ foreign language coordinator, remembers Bland “inching us year by year into better instructional practices,” encouraging cultural sensitivity and a welcoming atmosphere for foreign-born students.

Bland recruited dual-language education pioneers Wayne P. Thomas and Virginia P. Collier for teacher and administrator workshops, and cultural anthropologist and local immigration researcher Laura Zarrugh for diversity training.

Zarrugh considers Bland’s work “foundational in establishing the ESL program in city schools and easing the cultural adjustments.”

— Samantha Cole ’11

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