Granite School District forms charter school to serve refugees and immigrants

Story and photos by KATIE UNDESSER

Take a tour of Utah International Charter School.

Non-English-speaking children now have the opportunity to go to school with a curriculum catered to them in Granite School District.

The Utah International Charter School (Utah International), located in South Salt Lake, Utah, held its first class in August 2013. When opened, it launched with a total of 94 students and six teachers, two of whom were part-time.

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Utah International Charter School, located at 350 E. Baird Circle in Salt Lake City, provides a curriculum catered to refugees and immigrants.

By Oct. 1, 2013, this seventh- through 12th-grade charter school had 104 students attending its classes.

There was another school before Utah International was established that educated refugees and non-English-speaking students. However, it was shut down due to segregation issues.

“District politicians decided they couldn’t have a school that segregates because it’s a Civil Rights violation,” said Angela Rowland, principal of Utah International.

According to Uncommon Schools, a charter school is an independently run public school that is granted greater flexibility in its operations, in return for greater accountability for performance. It is a publicly funded school established by teachers, parents or community groups under the terms of a charter with a local or national authority.

The Board of Trustees, including Steven Winitzky, Wanda Gayle and others, were concerned about the high drop-out rate of refugees. Some were falling behind because their English was not at grade level or they hadn’t learned any yet.

Now, Utah International has nearly tripled in enrollment with 245 students and 18 full-time teachers along with six staff members. Approximately 90 percent of the school’s enrollment consists of students whose first language is not English; 80 percent of whom are refugees.

“It’s like a little U.N. (United Nations) where you can walk down the halls and hear eight different languages,” said Heather Amir, one of Utah International’s para professionals who helps with the special education students.

“They (the kids) are mainstreamed into regular classes and so if they don’t need assistance, I can go help other students. Mainly the English-learners are the ones I help with when they need help with the understanding of words, spelling, definitions – that kind of stuff,” Amir said.

“I aid the special-education students by helping them get focused, receive the materials they need and assist them in following directions,’ she said.

The success of Utah International is based on the model of Sheltered English Instruction from the International Network for Public Schools, Rowland said. This model is designed to make every subject accessible to students no matter their proficiency in English.

Students are put into a classroom where they are assigned to groups. Within these groups, they all face each other. This set up makes it so the students are required to talk to each other to get their work done versus having a teacher talk at them.

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One of the classrooms at Utah International, where students work in groups.

“I feel almost like the aunt who’s not like a huge part of their lives, but they always know I’m there and if they ever need anything they can come to me,” Amir said. “Sometimes, I have to say ‘I can’t help you, but let me find somebody who can,’ and I think that really is an empowering tool for them to see.”

This model gives the opportunity for those students who speak different languages to find the one common ground in English.

“How do I make it so even my students with a low level of English can think about it to interact with that material?” Rowland wonders. “That’s called scaffolding.”

According to The Glossary of Education Reform, “scaffolding refers to a variety of instructional techniques used to move students progressively toward stronger understanding and, ultimately, greater independence in the learning process. The term itself offers the relevant descriptive metaphor: teachers provide successive levels of temporary support that help students reach higher levels of comprehension and skill acquisition that they would not be able to achieve without assistance.”

The majority of the funding for Utah International comes from the state of Utah

“We are chartered by Granite, but we pay full market rate, we don’t get any deal from them,” Rowland said.

Granite School District does not advertise Utah International on its website.

“The reason behind this,” Rowland said, “is because if a student goes down to a public school and they realize that student speaks zero English they will say ‘Oh, you speak no English, we’re going to send you to Utah International,’ when in fact that is when it becomes a segregating issue.”

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Utah International as you walk in the front door.

By law, Utah International is required to accept anyone who would like to attend as long as it has room for them.

Utah International is not just a school that teaches geography, science, math and more. It is a school that provides teenagers with vision and self-worthiness.

In 2016, Eagle Vision, a private nonprofit, volunteered to come to Utah International to give free eye examinations. Rowland said 90 students needed glasses.

That same nonprofit chartered two buses to take the 90 students to get their follow-up exam. A couple of days later, Eagle Vision came back to the school to fit those 90 students with cost-free glasses.

Utah International provides free breakfast, lunch and even dinner to most of its students. Between the time of school dismissal until dinner, the school is open to them all where it offers various after-school programs or activities. These activities include homework help, dance, soccer, basketball and cooking.

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Murals of the graduating class of 2016 created by the summer art program.

Adrienne Buhler, the after-school programmer, was hired by the City of South Salt Lake. She partners with Utah International through the program Promise South Salt Lake.

Buhler said, “Our mayor (Cherie Wood) made three promises to the city: every student will graduate from high school and go onto a post-secondary degree, every neighborhood will be clean and safe and every family will have the ability to be healthy and prosper.”

Rowland said, “The library is opened so students can do homework and use the computers. Unlike a lot of schools, we allow them to use YouTube. At home, they don’t have Wi-Fi. They all have phones, but they’re almost always broken and never have phone service.”

During the summertime, Utah International hosts several different programs that its students can attend.

“These kids want to go to school. They don’t have cars, their parents work all day and there’s nothing for them to do,” Rowland said.

She added, “Some of the programs allow the students to show their creative side in art. Others inform them on topics such as sex, relationships or drugs.”

Amir, the para professional, said, “Most of the faculty want to be here. They are investing their time and energy for these kids.”

Utah International had its first graduating class of eight in 2016. Each year, Utah International is growing as the demand for English learning classes increases.