When Sun Par arrived at Perry Township’s William Henry Burkhart Elementary from Myanmar as a fourth grader in 2007, she said “it was overwhelming” as a student who didn’t know English.
Even though her first few days at William Henry Burkhart were difficult, Par said as she and her peers “adapted to the culture and our environment” the teachers gave them “a loving welcome.”
Now, she’s back at her old elementary school as a tutor and translator. She attributes her passion for education to her former school and the teachers who worked with her.
“I’ve always wanted to be a teacher,” Par said. “Growing up, I always tell myself, ‘Maybe I should go back to my former elementary school, so that I could give back what they gave me.’”
Sun Par’s story isn’t an accident. William Henry Burkhart has been committed to improving English language instruction for refugees from Myanmar — which was previously known as Burma — since the first students from the country began arriving in the community nearly two decades ago, said Principal Darlene Hardesty, who used to be Par’s teacher at the school.
By implementing strategies like integrating language instruction into different activities and a support structure for teachers, Perry has tried to achieve this goal.
The school’s hard work has led to recognition. In June, William Henry Burkhart was shortlisted for a World’s Best School prize awarded by T4 Education, which was founded to establish and support a network of teachers and schools and “highlight innovation.” Burkhart is one of just ten schools worldwide that’s up for the group’s Community Collaboration award, which focuses on schools that use “a whole child approach based on equity and inclusivity.”
Hardesty said that welcoming students, regardless of background, into the school community is what Burkhart does best, and its “goal is to help them grow to the next level.”
T4 Education will announce the three finalists in September, and the winners in October. Each winning school will receive $50,000.
Indiana has had a relatively large population from Myanmar for some time. According to the Burmese American Community Institute, there are over 40,000 living in Indiana, almost 27,000 of whom live in Indianapolis. (The U.S. Census Bureau’s 2021 estimate for the population in Indiana is lower, at about 23,500.) There are over 4,000 students with family roots in Myanmar in Perry Township.
There has been an increase in English language learners in Indiana for several years. In 2005, the number of English learners was over 56,000, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. By 2022, that figure was over 77,000, the Indiana Department of Education reported.
In Perry Township, 28.3% of its over 16,000 students were English learners in the 2020-2021 school year.
Hardesty said she realized that she had to change her teaching style as more English learning students arrived beginning in 2005.
“As a fifth grade teacher, I was not used to instructing students who had no reading skills,” she said. “So that was very different. We needed to learn very quickly how to differentiate our instruction.”
Using master teachers to improve English language instruction
In response, Perry adopted the Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol (SIOP) in 2007, which has eight parts such as interaction and practice and application. This method targets the needs of English learners by integrating language instruction into each classroom activity.
In addition, Perry Township began a partnership with the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching in 2012 for each school, after an initial collaboration with two Perry schools beginning in 2010.
The structure includes the leadership of master teachers who guide professional development and demonstrate classroom strategies. Patrick Mapes, Perry’s superintendent, said that it’s important for teachers to have “this contact point to get better.”
Jenny Taylor has been a master teacher at Homecroft Elementary since 2014. Besides guiding professional development, master teachers analyze data from state assessments. Perry gathers this data by conducting monthly district-wide testing for language arts and math, according to Mapes. Master teachers also organize and oversee field testing in classrooms to better understand the effectiveness of different strategies.
Taylor said the most powerful shift in English language instruction for Perry was consciously thinking about how the four domains of reading, writing, speaking, and listening apply to each aspect of teaching using SIOP. She said with these methods, teachers constantly ask themselves how English learning students might absorb content.
“What reading are they going to struggle with?” she said. “When they’re listening to me talk, am I talking too fast? Do I need to change my vocabulary up to something that they understand?”
By building a strong foundation of development with teachers, Taylor said, she can focus on “the support to teachers that I can give” which ultimately helps students.
Helping a new generation of Burmese students
Par graduated from Indiana University- Purdue University Indianapolis in May 2022. Shortly after, she reached out to her former school looking for a position. Hardesty said she was a perfect fit.
“There was a moment this school year where she was teaching some first graders,” Hardesty said. “And she had out some of the phonics tiles, the letter tiles, and they were pushing and making words, doing sounds, and I just thought, ‘Oh my gosh, this is the moment right here. She’s doing what we taught her to do so long ago.’”
As a tutor and translator, Par works with several small groups of students who are at different levels of English learning. She said it’s wonderful to be able to relate to students.
“I remember within fourth and fifth grade, learning how to write basic things, even like writing my own name,” she said. “Just seeing them, I could feel they try so hard. But at the same time, as a teacher, we can see and push them harder. And that’s what I did, just like my teachers did with me.”
Jade Thomas is a summer reporting intern covering education in the Indianapolis area. Contact Jade at firstname.lastname@example.org.