Fardosa is not alone

I first met Fardosa when she had just arrived in this country. At that time her young face reminded me of a theatrical mask for Tragedy: shock and dismay as well as pain and suffering registered there. I later learned she came from a remote village in Somalia, had never seen a city before and had spent a year in a Kenyan refugee camp. She had no family left, apart from a brother in Seattle, and had been sent here to live with him and his wife.

I began working with her last spring at the Seattle School District's Secondary Bilingual Orientation Center (SBOC) at Fourth Avenue North and Boston Street. She had never been inside a school, never held a pencil, never known a teacher. She was 16 years old.

Fardosa's story is not an isolated case. Every year more students arrive from war-torn East Africa. Their first encounter with the Seattle school system is the SBOC. Here they learn math, science, art, how to read, write and speak in English. They learn about pens, rulers, backpacks and computers. In addition they learn fundamentals we all picked up in kindergarten: stay in your seat, raise your hand to ask or answer a question; how to take a test, how to line up to get lunch; respect others, don't interrupt, no bullying.

Nor are East Africans the only newcomers. Conflict in the developing world results in the SBOC receiving students from Haiti, Congo, Myanmar, Kenya, West Africa and elsewhere. They also arrive from the Philippines, Vietnam, Ukraine, Ethiopia, El Salvador, Panama, Liberia and numerous other non-English-speaking countries.

The SBOC has open enrollment and receives students throughout the academic year with a population that varies between 250 and 325. This small school at the old John Hay site has to be the most diverse and cosmopolitan in the city!

It is imperative that we try our best to prepare these kids for the realities and complexities of American society by giving them the tools they need. The SBOC provides translators, family outreach and a warm community where everyone is learning the same skills. No student feels out of place. The only language they have in common is English, and on the playground and in their P.E. classes they soon learn to communicate with one another. Most students gain enough foundation within two years to go on to attend a mainstream middle or high school.

Fardosa, I'm happy to say, has thrived at the SBOC. She greets me every day with "Good morning, teacher!" and a glorious smile. I want to tell her I'm not a teacher, I'm a volunteer concerned about her ability and that of her fellow students to contend with demands of the 21st century. I want her to be educated and employable, to be able to cope on her own, to support herself. She will bring a unique point of view as well as many capabilities to our diverse culture. The least we can do is to support and encourage her small beginnings by volunteering at the school, and by encouraging the Seattle School District to keep this vital learning center open.[[In-content Ad]]