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Learning From The Past: ESL Education Had To Evolve As Pittsburgh Public Swelled With Refugees

When students Bishal Rai, Arpun Khadka and Gabriel Sahij walk into Concord Elementary School in Carrick, a welcome sign greets them in English, Spanish and Nepali. 

It’s the first of many indications that at this school and its larger community, changing demographics mean changes in the curriculum and the ways children are learning.

English as a Second Language Director Jonathan Covel said it's a far cry from how Pittsburgh Public Schools once approached foreign arrivals. For decades, schools didn’t have to accommodate students who do not speak English as their first language. And for Pittsburgh and other districts, those changes were challenging.

Now, though, educators say they have the hang of it.

“There was a lot of work that we had to do around putting some structures in place, with having the kids go to different teachers during the day and not staying in the ESL room to (teaching) schools about the culture, the language (and) how we can outreach to parents better,” he said.

English as a Second Language Educational Assistant Jason Bhandari huddled recently over dry erase boards with Rai, Khadka and Sahij urging the two third-graders and one fourth-grader, respectively, to follow his phonetic cues to sound their way through words.

All recent arrivals to the U.S., the boys were identified by Pittsburgh Public Schools by language, not country of origin. In total, 30 languages are spoken among 810 English-as-a-second-language students in the district.

Covel said 96 attend Concord alone.

“When you come to the U.S. for the first time, you have to learn lots of ways to say different words, for example, ‘Can I go to the bathroom?’ And how to make a word and how to use it in a sentence,” Bhandari said.

Bhandari, who immigrated to the U.S. as a Bhutanese refugee in 2008, remembers his early days in Pittsburgh. At age 18, he started working right away. Then someone told him he still qualified for schooling, so he enrolled at Pittsburgh’s Brashear High School.

“When I enter the class for the first time, I feel really embarrassed to see other people who were kind of younger, kind of shorter and who are really smart too,” he said. “And I feel like a different person. I have different skin.”

He graduated before his 21st birthday in the top 20 percent of his class, going on to attend the Community College of Allegheny College and later returned to Pittsburgh Public Schools. Today, Bhandari spends a lot of his time calling parents, interpreting for teachers, translating paperwork and helping families who are new to the country navigate their American home.

He could have benefited from a similar program, he said.

“I just want to help, because there was no one to help me when I was growing up, when I was studying in high school and elementary school and all those things,” Bhandari said.

There are two other Nepali-speaking para-professionals in other Pittsburgh Public Schools. One came here from Seattle, the other one from Australia.

Jonathan Covel said it’s all part of an evolving Pittsburgh.

“A lot of global trends are coming to Pittsburgh,” Covel said. “This is one of the largest periods of migration in the last 200 years. So in Pittsburgh, we’re seeing that."

The Remake Learning series is a collaboration of 90.5 WESA, WQED, Pittsburgh Magazine and NEXTpittsburgh.