Okeeheelee’s international flavor

Warrior Times staff

One seventh-grader says she was born in the United States but grew up learning both English and Spanish because her family is from Colombia.

      A recent student said her family came to the U.S. in 2012 to escape the violence taking a toll on her relatives and region in Honduras. And student Alain François said his family moved here about four years ago from Haiti because his mom had a job opportunity

      “I actually like it here better,” the seventh-grader says. Teachers are very strict in Haiti, he said. “It’s easier (here) because they’re very agile with learning.”

       This sampling shows that our school has an international character, with a lot of people from different cultures. Even Okeeheelee’s staff is multicultural, with at least 12 countries represented, including Peru, Guyana, Spain, Cyprus, and the Philippines.

       “The kids benefit because they are exposed to a different world. They become global,” says Nitza Maldonado, Okeeheelee’s language acquisition coordinator. In fact, the idea behind the school’s International Spanish Academy — which has about 530 students, most U.S.-born — is that students learn about different countries, cultures, languages, and the ways of other people, she said.

Okeeheelee has about 1,437 students, and most speak a foreign language – not just English. Many in our school speak Spanish as their first language — 841. For 512 students, English is the first language, and 54 speak Creole. In addition, six students speak Bengali or Bangla, and another four speak Philipino Tagalog. All in all, there are 18 languages spoken by students at Okeeheelee.

Students who are immigrants face challenges such as learning a new language and adjusting to American ways, Maldonado said. “I think it takes a lot of time for them to understand.”

Most Okeeheelee students are from the U.S.: 1,148. The rest are from 34 other countries, according to school district statistics. The foreign countries with the most students are: Cuba, 80; Honduras, 34; Colombia, 30; Haiti, 24; Mexico,18; El Salvador and Jamaica, both with 16; and Guatemala, 13. Students have come from as far away as Bangladesh, Vietnam, China, Hungary, and Syria. And nearly every month, more arrive.

    The school district is also diverse. In a 2016 interview for the “Inside the District” news program, Claudia Shea asked Superintendent Robert Avossa whether schools have enough employees to communicate with those speaking different Mayan dialects.

    “It’s nearly impossible for us right now to find folks who can translate some of the dialects that are coming from Guatemala,” Avossa replied. “There are wonderful communities and beautiful people and children who are looking for a better life for their children and themselves.”

    Avossa is an immigrant himself. He came to the U.S. from Italy. “I didn’t speak English and my teachers didn’t speak Italian. It was sort of sink or swim. It was tough,” he said. “We did the best we could.”

    Avossa has met with immigrant groups since he started in the job in 2015.

    “I want people to feel that they’re part of a community and that we’re interested in helping one another,” he told Shea. “But I also have high expectations for them – making sure that kids get to school on time, that they’re prepared, that they’re doing homework.

    “This is not just a one-way street. We’ve got to work together and make things better for our kids.”

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