Carol Salva’s classroom is not like many others. Her classroom consists of 32 English as Second Language students that came to the United States in the summer of 2015, with the majority coming from refugee camps in Africa and others from surrounding countries.
Salva is co-teaching with Katherine Dierschke at Spring Forest Middle, a school a part of the Spring Branch Independent School District. Her classroom and school district differ from large districts like HISD, where HISD has an entire school dedicated to help transition into the school system.
When the students arrived at Spring Forest, Salva recalls the school and teachers having difficulty. The influx of students with interrupted, or lack of formal education, was unusual for the area. At the time, Salva was on assignment with SBISD’s ESL department. She went where needed to support teachers through training and coaching.
“The district’s ESL Director was asking me to assist the campus at the time,” Salva said. “I was working with them once per week to offer some relief to the ESL teachers, but I was honest with my boss. I did not feel equipped to help with the issues they were having.”
Earlier in the school year, Salva had accepted a position in one of the high schools for the coming school year. She had plans of returning to the classroom with ESL students to implement the strategies she had been using in her training over the years.
All of that changed when these students came into Salva’s life.
“I sat down with the ESL director to discuss how my school year was going,” she said. “She knew that I was looking for a change and we knew that Spring Forest needed more support. The group of refugees were having a hard time adjusting to their classes and to each other. The school brought in translators to help the students understand school norms, but these kids had been through so much hardship prior to coming to America. There were issues with culture clashes among the group, in addition to what you need to take into account with all adolescents. The campus was doing everything they could but we were all wondering how this would work out.”
Salva’s director came up with the idea of reassigning her to Spring Forest to support the campus daily.
“I was nervous but I jumped at the opportunity,” she said. “I was not sure how to best help but I was being offered a chance to try several different techniques to help determine what works best for this demographic.”
Salva said the principal was very supportive of their ideas to move students around to best serve them. When one of the ESL teachers had to take leave, Katherine Dierschke joined the team. Her background in social services with immigrant youth made her a perfect addition to the team.
Salva took over 20 of the refugees and asked to keep them for the entire four hour block. They immediately setup goals together and a social contract of expectations for behavior and learning.
“At the beginning of the year, most of these students we’re getting two hours of P.E. because we were not sure what they could handle.” Salva said. “By second semester, most were making huge strides and ready for real electives.”
Real world experiences
Salva and her colleagues are proud of the progress the students are making. One of the biggest challenges Salva said she has to overcome is teaching literacy to a student who may not even have literacy in their own language. She’s sought out just about every tool she could get her hands on to help accelerate her students and keep them engaged.
One tool that her students have really taken to is hands-on learning and one recent trip brought her and her oldest students of the class into the Heights.
Salva met restraunteur and owner of Heights-based The Durham House, Raj Natarajan, Jr., at a PledgeCents rodeo brunch that was raising funds to support educators. During that brunch, Salva reached out to Natarajan and explained her current classroom and some of her past educational study trips. Natarajan obliged and in no time Salva and her classroom were preparing for their lesson on entrepreneurship, hierarchy of a restaurant and even a quick science and culinary lesson.
Of the many questions, Natarajan said many of them asked what he liked about owning his own business. He went through the challenges, struggles, but also the reward and joy.
“I talked about what it was like owning my own business and being my own boss,” Natarajan said. “But I really tried to reiterate, and maybe even iterate, that anyone with an idea and the will to work can make anything happen.”
Natarajan knows this to be true. His mother, Rufi Natarajan, was born in Lahore and grew up in Karachi, Pakistan. His father, Raj Natarajan Sr., was born in Tamil Nadu, a state in South India. His parents came to the states to continue their college education and to later go on and start building their own business.
“I’m impressed by the work Carol and her team do,” Natarajan said. “It takes a lot of care and a lot of focus. These kids have been through seemingly trying circumstances, but you can still see their thirst for knowledge. In my opinion, that line of work is what makes America exceptional and people like Carol make that happen.”
The students learned hands on with The Durham House’s executive chef Mike McElroy in how to feed so many people in one day. McElroy said he explained food costs with a butchery demonstration.
“I explained to the students about costs and how nothing should go to waste,” McElroy said. “A lot of them understood when we talked about using the fat for things like a roux for gumbo. These kids are knowledge hungry.”
Salva said she is having the best year she has ever had in her 12 years in education and that these students are making her rethink on what the future holds.
“These students are so inspiring and bring such value to our communities,” she said. “I’d like to keep working with refugees in some capacity. All we need is the right education partners to help us connect and inspire them. That is actually something we can leverage for all students we teach. I’m very grateful to The Durham House and to everyone who has helped us educate our community this year.”