How One Pittsburgh District Personalizes Its Approach to Integrating...

Personalized Learning

How One Pittsburgh District Personalizes Its Approach to Integrating Immigrant Students

By Jenny Abamu     Sep 20, 2017

How One Pittsburgh District Personalizes Its Approach to Integrating Immigrant Students

President Donald Trump made headlines when he told the world, "I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris,” before his announcement to pull out of the Paris Climate Accord. However, some might be surprised to learn that Pittsburgh, often cited for its high number of steelworkers, is also home to a large refugee population, making the city almost as diverse as Paris.

The large influx of refugees in Pittsburgh come from many countries including (but not limited to) Nepal, Bosnia, Iraq, Turkey, Somalia and the Congo. And the swift changes in demographics over the last ten years—as the refugee population has grown—has transformed schools in the region.

“More and more refugees and immigrants are coming into our school system,” says Denise Sedlacek, the assistant superintendent of Baldwin-Whitehall School District in Pittsburgh, in an interview with EdSurge. “At one point it was one side of our school district, and now they are everywhere. My job is to make sure that all of our teachers understand and have an appreciation for the diversity.”

To meet these diverse sets of needs, Sedlacek has turned to technology, maximizing the district’s 1:1 Chromebook program, so both parents and students of new refugee families can learn English with the devices (to serve a community where 34 different languages are represented). She currently utilizes Imagine Learning, Reading Smart and Achieve3000 software to help her students learn English.

“What we have really struggled with is some of the language barriers,” says Sedlacek. “We found programs geared for English learners using Chromebooks or iPads to help deliver that instruction on a very individualized basis.”

She hopes that since many of the students have shown progress in their language development using the devices, that the district can push out the program into the community. The plan is to get parents software licenses for the web-based programs so they can use their children’s Chromebooks to learn English at home on their own time.

“Many of the parents are working two different jobs, so how can we help support them with the tools and resources that we are giving to their children?” asks Sedlacek. “Not to take it away from the children, but to again allow for a greater community presence.”

Assimilating and progressing in the United States has been a challenge for refugees in Pittsburgh. News reports note that refugee populations often struggle with attending college, purchasing homes and discrimination. Ker Nyaw Say, a young immigrant from Burma, says her status as a refugee has defined her time as a student in Baldwin-Whitehall School District. In a video she posted online two years ago, she chronicled her experiences adjusting to life in Pittsburgh, learning to speak English and making new friends.

Sedlacek says her goal is to continuously empower students like Say to share their stories. She feels that understanding and sharing history has helped the American-born students in her school bond with the refugee students.

“In the beginning, American-born students didn’t really understand the refugee community, and the refugees were embarrassed because of where they came from,” explains Sedlacek. “But the opportunities for our students to experience other cultures prepares them for their future.”

One way the Baldwin-Whitehall School District is working to break down barriers is through partnerships with organizations such as the Malala Fund. Last year 2000 students went to see the premiere of the film, “He Named Me Malala.” Sedlacek says the film helped showcase the lack of educational opportunities for young girls around the world, opening the door for dialogue.

And teachers in her school district have taken made their own separate efforts. One ESL instructor started a project called Saving Stories to fill a gap of children’s stories written in Napolese or Karen. The educator pursued a grant from the Macy’s Foundation and worked with local librarians to translate folk and early developmental reading stories (such as “See Jane Run”) into those languages. Adults and elders in the refugee community guide the story narratives, while high school art students created the graphics.

The district is also working with companies such as Comcast to bring low-cost Wi-Fi to refugee communities, for less than $10 a month. They are also working with local libraries to train parents on how to use school systems to access things such as student-performance and behavior reports on a regular basis.

“We want the parents to be able to get 24/7 access their student's grades and their attendance,” says Sedlacek. “One of our elementary schools is using ClassDojo across the board for behavior, and we want parents to be able to understand how they can track their children's behavior on a daily basis.”

Making such a diverse school district work has been an uphill battle, and Sedlacek says they still have a long way to go. However, she treasures the knowledge she has gained.

“Our kids were finally able to find their voice and share what some of their experiences were,” explains Sedlacek. “One of our girls wrote a beautiful essay. She is African. She came from the Congo but noted in her essay that she is often categorized as an American black here. She gets stereotyped and says she feels like she loses a little bit of herself. Being at Baldwin-Whitehall helps, she said—the fact that we are a diverse community—and yet her essay was very enlightening to me. We have miles to go.”

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