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Refugee Students In Baldwin Are Using Their Summer To Prepare For Life After High School

Sarah Schneider
90.5 WESA
Bidur Powdyel, left, and Bimala Kadariya hold photos they took during a summer camp in the Baldwin-Whitehall School District.

Bimala Kadariya is a vibrant 15-year-old who is quick to tell you that she wants to be famous.

But, she said, she hasn’t thought a lot about what she wants to do after high school. With a laugh, she says she’s still “clueless.” She does know, though, that once she turns 18, she wants to visit the country where she was born, Nepal.

“I can’t remember anything from Nepal,” she said. “It’s hard for me. When I have the money I’m trying to go back to see my childhood again.”

Kadariya immigrated to Pennsylvania in 2011 and said the hardest part of moving to a new country is learning the language. She’s spent a majority of her summer with peers from across the world who are also learning English.

Her Baldwin High School ESL (English as a Second Language) teachers organized the camp as a way to prevent what educators call the summer slide, which is when students lose some of what they learned during the school year during academic breaks.

Many of the refugee students are coming to the country with little or interrupted formal education.

“We have a short amount of time to fill a large gap. That gap is academic, but also language. So by using the summertime, it helps catch them up,” said ESL teacher Holly Niemi.

Credit Sarah Schneider / 90.5 WESA
90.5 WESA
Baldwin High School students listen to a lecture on taxes and take-home pay during a summer camp for students learning English as a Second Language.

She worked with another Baldwin ESL teacher, Kate Musselman, to create the summer camp that emphasizes STEAM – science, technology, engineering, art and math – disciplines. The two expanded the program to six weeks this year after a shorter pilot last year. 

The teachers want students to continue their education while also setting realistic post-secondary goals. They explore vocational training as well as applying for college. 

The students have learned about everything from local ecology to how to make ice cream in a science class. They made mock budgets and discussed take home pay in math class.  

Bidur Powdyel, like many young people, was shocked to see how much money was taken from his paycheck for state and federal taxes.

“Before I didn’t know about the taxes things. Yeah, it’s like a big deal and making money is not easy,” he said.

The 17-year-old Nepali student and his classmates are paid through Allegheny County’s Learn and Earn program.

The paycheck means a lot to Isha Kamala. The 17-year-old has lived in Pittsburgh for a year and a half. She lives with her dad, but has family in Sierra Leone. She sends part of her paycheck to them.

“With that money, I am able to help my family, even though it is not enough. I just want them to know I will always help them with whatever little money I have,” she said. “I give thanks to my teachers for including me in this program.”

During the week dedicated to art, students were assigned to take photos incorporating objects from their culture and American culture.

“Our students are very hard workers. They’ve come here to make a better life. Their parents have sacrificed leaving their country. And all they’ve brought with them, really, is their culture,” Niemi said.

During the art class, Kadariya placed a statue of Hindu Gods in front of an American flag at the County Courthouse. She said the photo expresses freedom of religion.  

Credit Sarah Schneider / 90.5 WESA
90.5 WESA
Bimala Kadariya displays the photo she took of a statue of Hindu Gods in front of an American flag.

“Even if we are in America, the God is going to be with us everywhere. It’s going to stay in our heart,” she said of the photo.

The students' photography will be displayed in community libraries in Baldwin and Whitehall. 

Of Baldwin's 4,200 students, 350 are in the ESL program. Niemi said the district has seen steady growth since the first ESL student registered for classes in 1996. Niemi and Musselman said the program could be scaled in other districts looking to prepare students with unique needs for post-secondary education.

Before launching the six-week program, the teachers surveyed students to gauge interest.

“We found that many students were going to either be watching a younger sibling or they would just be at home. We wanted them to do something more productive with their time. Which is why we have such good attendance, they see it as a good use of their time,” she said.

The ESL STEAM Program enrolls about 20 students and runs through August 2.