Tucked within a quiet Kansas City community, Crestview Elementary School is pretty unassuming.
But once inside the building, at 4327 N. Holmes St., it’s impossible to miss the multicultural faces in the classrooms or the international flags lining the hallway.
A third of Crestview’s 520 students participate in the English Language Learners program, and 45 percent of the student population comes from a household where a second language is spoken.
“Our DNA is really built on our diversity,” Principal Deyrle Wallace said.
And those genetics are truly unique among suburban schools on the Missouri side of the metro, where Crestview’s percentage of ELL and Limited English Proficient students far outstrips building figures in other districts. The highest percentage in neighboring Platte County is less than half of Crestview’s, according to data from the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
Nevertheless, Crestview has stellar student achievement — thanks in no small measure to a radical shift in its school schedule — and its staff has become expert at drowning out all the noise about the Trump administration’s immigration crackdown. It’s on their minds, but they hardly have time to dwell on such things.
New students arrive almost weekly at the school. They come from Micronesia, Afghanistan, Haiti, Egypt and beyond. The job for staff always remains the same: Teach every last one to read, multiply and perform on grade level.
This month, Wallace is squarely focused on the Missouri assessment tests. It’s the time when some administrators would reiterate the challenges of educating a mobile, low-income and large non-English speaking population. Wallace isn’t one of them. He knows a new student will walk into the office just as testing begins.
“We put them in the classroom and make them feel at home,” Wallace said. “That’s part of us.”
Outsiders are often surprised that many ELL teachers don’t speak another language. At Crestview alone, students speak 23 languages. No school could keep up with that demand, said North Kansas City ELL Coordinator Laura Lukens.
“It’s a fallacy that in order to teach non-English speaking students that you have to communicate in a native language,” Lukens said.
Instead, teachers rely on a form of instruction that includes everything from classroom visual aids, gestures, facial expressions and real objects. Every corner of the ELL classrooms at Crestview are lined with visual aids to cue students.
In many ways Happy Melly is your typical middle schooler who loves to play soccer and spend time with his family. But he also speaks three languages and had to travel thousands of miles to make Kansas City his new home.
The district uses interpreters and other means to ensure essential language needs are communicated and documents signed. Students are often connected to classmates who speak the same language to help with socialization.
Teachers also ensure children know their basic needs — food, water, warmth, rest, security and safety — will be met long before they even consider diving deep into academics.
“Job one is to learn school in America,” Lukens said.
No Crestview families have been separated by the Trump administration’s tough immigration policies. But, Lukens said, district teachers are prepared to deal with the anxiety they produce.
“We do have a lot of refugees here too who suffer by PTSD and could be triggered by something,” she said. “We know that students won’t perform well on (state) tests if they are in fight, flight or freeze mode. So, what we as teachers try to do is lower that anxiety, provide a stress-free environment.”
At Crestview and elsewhere in the district, ELL students often begin their day with a community circle that allows the small group to address their needs for each day with a series of simple questions: “What are your goals for today?” Or “How are you feeling today?”
“My goal for today is to be the difference by using my words to ask friends to play and to work hard,” a Syrian refugee told a Crestview ELL teacher recently.
Visitors are hardly out of the ordinary at this neighborhood school. Educators want to know how the low-income school managed to overcome so many challenges and increase student achievement.
For years, Crestview was among the bottom third achieving schools in the North Kansas City district. Yet it now ranks in the top three performing schools on district and state assessments, district officials said.
Crestview’s year-round school program has been part of the revolutionary turnaround.
Crestview introduced 31 extra days in 2015. It virtually eliminated summer regression. Students have continuous access to high-quality English instruction and books. The experiences couldn’t be replicated in many local households.
“It makes a huge difference,” Lukens said.
Staff is a critical component of the success, Wallace said. The staff was free to transfer during the calendar change. It allowed teachers to move elsewhere for personal reasons. It also required staff to consciously choose to work in a demanding environment. Having energized and motivated teachers can’t be understated, Wallace said.
“If we’re pushing ourselves then we’re pushing our kids,” he said.
In fact, the ELL team recently analyzed every lesson that takes place within students’ homerooms to determine what extra linguistic support their children might need.
In order for a second grader to understand the life cycle of a butterfly during metamorphosis, for example, they must first comprehend chronology. It’s something ELL teachers work on during their specialized instruction time.
“We don’t water down the content, but we provide a lot of linguistics,” Lukens said. “What our teachers do is we analyze the language load of the content lesson. If you think about it, our students are doing double work. They’re learning language and content at the same time.”
Crestview’s diversity has also prompted Wallace to think differently about everything he does, right down to purchasing library books. This year, he combed through thousands of books to ensure every child of color and other ethnicities saw themselves reflected in the pages.
“If we had the money,” he said, “we were going to be purposeful in how we spent it.”
Wallace’s emphasis on building trusted relationships with every student in the building was on display on one recent morning, when he wandered through several classrooms, much to the delight of students who quietly waved or tried to catch his eye.
He checked on one student who started the day before and pointed out how individual book boxes allow each child to engage in something meaningful to them and move at their own reading pace.
“That way they don’t get frustrated and give up,” he said. “If that happens, it’s a loss of learning time that you’re not going to get back.”
The principal also works to build strong bonds with parents. Simply showing up for drop-off and dismissal sends a message.
“You make yourself visible. You can’t stay hidden. It takes a concerted effort,” he said.
Lukens said the district works diligently to build relationships with families, too. The goal is to increase parent participation in school activities and build parent confidence.
“When our kids come over and they’re able to learn English and the parents aren’t, it creates a shift in the balance of power between the parent and the child,” Lukens said.
A district advocate helps families file paperwork or find resources for everything from citizenship classes to overcoming illiteracy.
The district is also getting attention for a parenting class called Parents as Educational Partners. The pilot project began this year as a way to teach parents basic English and navigate the U.S. school system. Parents come twice a week to Crestview to learn everything from what is a snow day to how to call in sick for their children.
The efforts might turn off some. Yet parent outreach, Lukens said, has always been critical to elementary school success. That’s a strategy, Lukens said, that makes sense regardless of language or nationality.
— Dawn Bormann Novascone is a freelance journalist based in Kansas City who spent 15 years covering news at The Kansas City Star.