When the fire alarm rang, Aekrama Ahmed and Ali Fadhil knew what to do. When they arrived a year ago, fresh from Sudan and Iraq, they weren’t so sure.
At New Haven’s main K-8 beacon for immigrants and refugees, they’ve gotten used to the new customs, routines, even the language of their new country.
The students are among 100 immigrant and refugee kids who enrolled last year at Fair Haven School on Grand Avenue. The school serves as the landing pad for Latino kids who move into Fair Haven—and for all K-8 students citywide who have lived in the U.S. for less than 10 months, who go there instead of attending their own neighborhood schools.
The school welcomes them with extra English-language-learning support—then sticks with them as they try to catch up with their peers in mainstream classes and on standardized tests.
As they begin a daunting journey in their new country, Aekrama (at left in the above photo), Ali and their siblings have helped each other navigate the new terrain. Entering their second year, they are speaking fluent English and helping even newer newcomers follow their path.
The two families, who both settled in the U.S. with the help of the Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services (IRIS), live just one block away from each other in Westville. On Thursday morning, they began their day waiting at the same bus stop. The students—three from the Ahmed family and four from the Fadhils—piled into the same the big yellow bus.
The Ahmeds, of Sudan, moved to the neighborhood first, enrolling in Fair Haven in April of 2012. The Fadhils followed in September. The kids’ ages pair up nicely: Two are now in 1st grade; two in 5th, one in 6th and two in 8th.
They got off the bus Thursday wearing matching backpacks donated by the school. The little ones, Lana and Mariam, enveloped ESL teacher Kristin Mendoza with hugs. Aekrama, who’s in 5th grade, held the hand of a tiny newcomer named Amita who just joined the school.
Inside the school, they split up into their classrooms: First-graders went to the basement. Eighth-graders hiked up to the third floor.
Three students—Ali and Noor Fadhil and Aekrama Ahmed—headed to Mendoza’s second-floor classroom for a 100-minute literacy lesson. There, they joined other English-language learners in the 5th and 6th grades who were pulled out from their mainstream classrooms for extra support.
They read and listened to the first chapter of “Because of Winn-Dixie,” by Kate DiCamillo, about a girl named Opal who takes in a big, sloppy stray dog with an irresistible smile. Then they worked in small groups to make predictions about what would happen. Aekrama worked with Noor and two other students.
The discussion proved a safe space to make English-language-learner mistakes without judgment.
“OK, what do you think?” Aekrama confidently asked her peers.
“I think the dog will lost in someone’s party,” Noor suggested.
“I think Opal’s father will be scared because the dog is so ugly and messy,” opined Ali at a nearby table.
The kids then picked out independent learning books. Ali chose a graphic novel called Magic Pickle.
Noor picked out Sootface by Robert D. San Souci, a revamped Cinderella story with a protagonist from the Ojibwa Native American tribe.
The longer English block is part of a new, teacher-led effort to increase supports for English-language learners in the school. Over 50 percent of students there speak English as a nonnative language—a fact that has overwhelmed some mainstream teachers.
Mendoza’s morning class included students like Noor and Aekrama, who have left “newcomer” status, meaning they have been in the U.S. for more than 10 months; as well as kids who speak Spanish and have graduated from three years of bilingual education. Both of those groups of kids had been struggling in mainstream classes with texts that were too hard for them, Mendoza said. Students in Mendoza’s new literacy block learn the same lesson as their peers are learning in the mainstream curriculum—in this case, how to make a prediction about a story—but with reading material that’s not over their heads.
While Mendoza worked with Noor, Ali and Aekrama, ESL teacher Michael Soares pulled out their younger siblings, Lana and Mariam, for a literacy lesson in the basement. As second-year students at Fair Haven, Lana and Mariam were old pros relative to the group. They helped Salma Alhawamdeh and Rahaf Saood, who just arrived from Jordan and Syria, make their way through a game of “sight word bingo.”
Salma, who has been in the U.S. for only a couple of weeks, won the game, earning celebratory handshakes and first pick at a page of stickers.
The lesson showed how quickly Lana and Mariam, who are 6, have adapted to a new language. Both showed up last year speaking very little English. They jumped into Martina Ramos’s mainstream kindergarten class.
At first, little Lana had a tough time adjusting, Ramos said. “She would run out of the room.”
Now both speak English fluently.
“They’ve come a long way,” remarked Ramos Thursday. Soares said younger kids have the easiest time catching up with their peers: When they join the school in kindergarten, most of the students can’t read or write, so they learn together how to sound out words.
Lana (pictured) said she doesn’t remember her first day of school last year. Learning English was “easy,” she declared, chatting easily between bites of banana at lunch.
Mariam (pictured) recalled feeling “scared” on her first day of school in April of last year. When Lana arrived, they became friends. They both like to run races. And they teamed up to learn English: “I helped her to make her homework, and she helped me.”
The two now sit in different classrooms, and different tables at lunch. But they remain buddies on the bus and in the neighborhood, where their families get together to celebrate birthdays and share meals.
As the 1st-grade pals finished lunch—Lana ate the school’s rice and roasted chicken; Mariam munched on pita bread and mango juice from home—Omar and Badreldin studied history three stories above them.
In their second full year of school, all of the older siblings (3rd grade and up) face tougher expectations: As official “newcomers,” they didn’t have to take the reading and writing portions of state standardized tests. This year, they will have to.
Omar and Badreldin’s classes varied in how much teachers modified the material for English-language learners. In Thomas Woodard’s history class, students watched an intro-to-American-cities video projected on a wall.
“The streets in Manhattan are arranged like a grid,” read the narrator.
Omar listened to the video with headphones at a computer in the back of the room so that he could pause the video if he needed to. Badreldin tried out watching the video with the rest of the group. He told his teacher he didn’t want to go back to using the computer; he could handle learning along with his peers.
In English class with “Mr. D,” Dmitri Shevchenko, they joined their peers as they read a chapter from “Monster” by Walker Dean Myers.
In the cafeteria, Omar and Badreldin found spots in a sunlit side room, where younger Arabic-speaking immigrants had assembled.
Omar appeared at ease as he tossed his banana to a hungry classmate. He said the school is much different from the one he attended in Iraq: Back home, for starters, there was no cafeteria. Kids would sit on the floor in a large gymnasium-type space. When he arrived at Fair Haven, he said, he “found someone to help me,” an older kid in the 8th grade. That student has now graduated, and Omar navigates the school with independence.
He said he’s adjusted well to the school: “Now I speak English. Now I have a lot of friends.”
When a fire alarm rang in his post-lunch ESL lesson, he and his siblings knew the drill: Line up in the hallway. Walk down the stairs. File out onto the sidewalk. Ali said it was no big deal. (It turned out to be a practice drill, not the real thing.)
Aekrama (pictured with classmate Cristina Astacio), who’s 10, recalled that the first time she heard the fire alarm.
“It was, like, scary,” she said, “because it was my first time in school. You have to line up really fast, and don’t stop.”
Her family is from war-torn Sudan and most recently lived in Egypt. School in Egypt was very different, Aekrama said: “My school didn’t have fire drill. They didn’t care about that.”
“They didn’t give us lunch or breakfast” either, she recalled. “I think here is better,” she opined. Students at Fair Haven get free breakfast and lunch. And there aren’t many fights. In Egypt, “there’s a lot of fight. They fight about the president.”
Everyone filed out of the building in good order, announced Principal Margaret-Mary Gethings over the intercom. She issued every class an official gold star.
Back in Doug Bowman’s ESL class, Omar took his seat again. He was not only the only Iraqi, but the only non-Spanish speaker in a class of 14 kids. Omar read aloud his summary of a story the class had read about a girl named Carmen from Cuba.
“Carmen from Cuba and it was hard for her to live in a new country,” he began.
He then edited a classmate’s essay. “This doesn’t make sense,” Omar said, pointing out a sentence.
“Manejando!” said his peer. Omar shrugged at the foreign word. After some pantomiming—and a few words of Spanish flung about the room—they figured out the right word: Driving.
The Fadhil brothers ended their day with a strong suit—math. Ali and fellow student John Cruz discussed how to see if one number is bigger than another before getting to the harder part—writing out answers in complete sentences.
“He hasn’t been here long and he’s doing so well,” said 5th-grade teacher Sherri Deegan of Ali.
Upstairs, Omar’s and Badreldin’s hands shot up in the air, eager to offer answers on how to order integers.
After a stop to inquire about joining the soccer team, they met up with their siblings in the school gym and took the bus home.
All seven filed out at the same bus stop. The Fadhils turned left. The Ahmeds turned right. They went home to a similar routine: At the Fadhil home, Omar and Ali worked with a tutor from IRIS to do homework, while Lana played a game on a cell phone.
At the Ahmed’s home, Aisha Adam, held her youngest child on the couch as two tutors helped her older kids with their homework. Mariam changed out of her school uniform, which bore tiny stains from the day’s activities. She tore off the wristband with her bus number on it and scampered around the house in bare feet. Mom prepared a dinner of rice, chicken sauce and hot peppers to fuel up her kids for another day at school.
Past Independent stories on Fair Haven School: