Successful Students

Educating Refugees in the Heartland

By Amy Buffenbarger

“Ok, let’s count 91 to 100 all together.”

“I want to count one to 100 by myself!”

Alex, a first-grader and Edmunds Elementary School in Des Moines, Iowa, is a refugee from the African country of Burundi. Eager to show off his knowledge, he is a perfect example of the progress English Language Learners can make in supportive environments.

English Language Learners (ELLs) are the fastest growing group of students in American public schools, with one in four students projected to be an ELL by 2020. While the largest group of ELLs is Spanish speaking, there are 460 languages represented in U.S. classrooms. A challenge facing many priority schools.

Edmunds Elementary has a large and unique ELL population. Half of the students are ELLs, and 85 percent of those students are refugees from Africa. The trauma of war at home, in addition to language barriers between teachers, students and families, is just part of the challenge in educating these students. Many of the students don’t have education records and their parents have never attended school.

With students from Somalia, Sudan, Ethiopia, Iraq, Vietnam, Mexico and more, the immense challenge doesn’t discourage Dustin Hockman, the ELL Instructor at Edmunds.

Hockman, who has been teaching at Edmunds for 2.5 years, puts in 12-hour days during the week and keeps teaching through the weekend. He has become a familiar face in Oakridge, a low-income community located next to the school where most of the students live. 
When he isn’t at school, Hockman can be found taking donated computers to his student’s homes, visiting families in the community, teaching adults about resources in Des Moines and lending a supportive ear to his students. His passion and dedication to the success of students at Edmunds is clear.

Issa Abdinoor is the Bilingual Community Outreach Worker at Edmunds. He moved to the U.S. from Kenya 10 months ago where he volunteered at the school before being hired. Abdinoor translates information from the school going home to parents and families, and also works with the teachers to translate instructions for the students when they need extra help.

“If today you go to Oakridge, even the kids who never went to school at Edmunds know Mr. Hockman,” Abdinoor said. “Mr. Hockman is one of my best friends.”

Hockman credits the progress of the ELL students to the support and work of his colleagues at Edmunds. “I am so proud of our school,” Hockman said. “We’re all here because of our passion to teach. It doesn’t matter what level the students are at. The students know they are accepted here and that their teachers want to teach them. It’s exciting to see.”

Read more about Edmunds at the Priority Schools Campaign website.


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