OPS helps immigrant, refugee families adjust
Literacy classes aid kids, parents in learning English
Enkela Vehbiu felt lost when her children entered elementary school in the Omaha Public Schools.
The American school system was so different from Vehbiu's own schooling experience in her home country of Albania.
Vehbiu didn't understand what her kids did every day. Or how the teacher delivered lessons.
"I was like fish out of water," Vehbiu said of the experience.
The school's principal and teachers were patient with Vehbiu. They gave her opportunities to learn and observe what happens in the classroom.
Now, years later, it's Vehbiu's turn to help Nebraska's newest residents.
Vehbiu and other Omaha Public Schools staff members are helping immigrant and refugee families adjust to the American school system and learn English with adult and family literacy classes. In the classes, parents and families learn skills like how to read a report card or report their students' absence from school.
"This program, in my view as an immigrant parent of OPS, it's priceless," Vehbiu said. "If I had to do that all over again, being a new parent, I would come here every single day and take advantage of what is offered here."
There are currently 428 students from 23 countries enrolled in the English Language Parent Program. Daily classes are hosted in the district's Welcome Center located inside the Teacher Administrative Center, 3215 Cuming St.
OPS parents, blood relatives of OPS students and future OPS parents who live within the district's boundaries but have children too young for school can all attend the classes.
Many of the program's attendees work nights so they can continue to attend the program in the morning, but transportation to the classes can be one of the main challenges families face.
OPS staff offers a bus training trip to teach families how to use the bus. OPS also helps with bus tickets. If families miss their bus, sometimes the trip to the classes can take about three hours.
Even with those obstacles, the families keep showing up for the classes.
On a Monday morning last month, the classrooms inside the Welcome Center were full of students and teachers of all ages and different parts of the world. In one classroom, the students were from Afghanistan, Columbia, Mexico, Morocco and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
While singing a song with a refrain "choo choo," children too young for preschool practiced identifying colors in one classroom.
Across the hall, children played while their parents and family members sat at a table and listened to a story about getting school supplies in English.
"You listened to the story," the teacher tells the class. "So now we're going to practice reading the story. OK. You ready?"
In unison, the parents read the story back to the teacher a few words at a time.
"So here's a period so we stop for a little bit," the teacher tells the class.
The parents and family members are put in classes based on their English ability, so while one class goes over the meaning of "ing" at the ends of words, another class discusses the difference between colons and semicolons.
As often as possible, OPS hires staff members from Omaha's immigrant and refugee community to help in these classrooms, said Jaimie Cogua, coordinator of English learners, dual language, migrant and refugee education for OPS.
The classes focus on more than English. They teach parents to check their students' backpacks for information from the school, how to set up an online portal to check grades and more serious topics like suicide awareness and prevention.
"Our goal is to help them navigate the U.S. education system," Cogua said. "That's really our overarching goal so everything we do connects back to that school and family relationship and all the things parents need to know."
The hope is that parents build up their confidence in learning to read, speak, write and listen in English so they feel like they can call the school to report their child's absence or go to parent-teacher conferences and talk to teachers, Cogua said.
Even those phone calls to school staff about absences are practiced. Vehbiu remembered one mom calling her child's school on speaker phone so everyone in her class could listen. The minute the mom hung up, the entire class broke out in applause.
"It was a sense of accomplishment," Vehbiu said.
Those are things that Vehbiu takes for granted now but said "at first, was just terrifying."
And by going over topics like how to read a report card, the parents can understand how their children are doing in school. Vehbiu said one mom was thrilled to learn the "O" on her son's report card actually stood for outstanding, not a zero.
"She said 'I got mad at my son for bringing a zero,' but when we explained she was really very pleased with the performance of her son and the progress," Vehbiu said. "So those little things that you don't necessarily know or understand."
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