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Diversity's Celebration, Challenges in Action at Butler Elementary

Belmont schools are seeing a wave of students from different cultural, ethnic backgrounds; how is one school facing this new reality.

For the teachers at the Butler School, their hugely diverse student population does not strike them as a variation on the United Nations building or an adorable U.N.I.C.E.F. card.

The children they see every weekday – from 25 different countries and speaking 38 languages – are their charges for whom they strive to provide the best education possible.

It’s a fact that’s pure and simple for these educators.

“We don’t think of our work as difficult simply because we teach kids from so many cultures and countries,” said kindergarten teacher Audrey Ruddock who was a Butler student herself. “This is our job; this is our school.”

In fact, she said, the varied cultural make-up of the student body at Butler enhances her teaching.

“When children enter kindergarten, no one knows anything,” Audrey explained. “We start the year with a unit called ‘Myself and Others’ where the students learn how we are alike in many ways but also all different.”

When she attended Butler, there was only one black child enrolled in the school.

Now, when Audrey’s students look at their peers and as they move onto units about history and the melting pot that makes up America, they can actually see it for themselves.

 “The children look around the room and fully realize when they see their classmates and friends how you can be accepting of others no matter what is their skin color or culture,” she said.

Rich in variety but also demanding

Despite any of their protests to the contrary, Principal Mike McAllister definitely believes the teachers at Butler face unusual challenges every single day.

Certainly, he said, they have increasingly become accustomed to the varied student body as it has grown over the years but have had to equip themselves with coping tools in order to fully serve every child.

As of February 2012, there were 355 students at Butler. That population’s birth states totaled 25 (including Massachusetts) and birth countries were 25 (including the United States).

There were 38 different languages spoken in the Butler students’ homes with first language not being English (FLNE) at 29.1 percent (compared with 12.4 percent in the district and 16.3 percent in the state).

Less than three quarters of the students were White (61.74 percent); 7.3 were African American; 18.4 were Asian; 6.1 were Latino or Hispanic; and 6.4 were multi-racial.

It’s an economically diverse population as well: 42 students received free lunches and 8 received reduced lunches, totaling 15 percent of the students as compared with 7.5 percent of the district and 32 percent of the state.

McAllister said those facts mean the Butler teachers most certainly have to approach their classroom activities in different, creative ways that require much reflection and at-the-moment revision.

“Everyone here becomes an ELL (English Language Learner) teacher,” he said. “Everyone is trying to catch up.”

First-grade teacher Susan Blanchard pointed out that some of the children have arrived at the airport from various foreign countries just before enrolling in school.

“They don’t speak English so we often have them ‘buddy up’ with another child who does speak the language.” 

Team effort with every child participating

What transpires, McAllister noted, is that the students themselves feel a tremendous responsibility to their buddies and enjoy playing “grown up” or teacher.

“The children feel important, are proud of helping each other,” said Justin Chiu who teaches fourth grade and is a graduate of the Butler School.

“Many remember their experiences and wish someone had helped them.”

Chiu vividly remembers when the Butler School was more homogeneous and he could count on two hands in any grade level the students who were not white. He was one of two Asian children in the school and, although he was born in this country, spoke Chinese at home and was therefore required to see the ELL (English Language Learner) teacher.

Currently, so many of the students speak another language at home and live with extended families that the immersion into learning English takes place at all moments of the school day and not just in a “special” classroom.

“We have learned to check our assumptions at the door,” Chiu said. “Diversity is more than just being from a different country. We capitalize on the children’s different experiences (including financial); we stress the concept of acceptance and that really helps prepare kids for what life is like beyond Belmont.”

Those life lessons also occur when the children themselves share their stories.

Blanchard described a child telling the rest of the class what life was like in Kenya.

“That was so much more powerful than reading about it in a book,” she said.

More help is always needed

The diversity is what makes the Butler School so wonderful, McAllister said. Yet, he added, it’s demanding for the staff to accommodate each student with his or her particular needs.

“We’re doing a better job that we ever have but it’s still not easy,” he said.

Chiu added Butler always needs more support in ELL teachers.

Moreover, Ruddock pointed out, the school needs help for the parents of the students who do not speak English themselves.

And Blanchard said that academic language is more difficult to understand even if one does know English.

In general, every single day is an adventure in “making ends meet” educationally speaking.

“We often have to change lesson plans when we realize that our students do not have the background or knowledge for a particular piece of material,” Chiu said. “So we just change the schema.”

From diversity comes acceptance

Yet the staff takes all the challenges in stride.

“All day is about teaching and learning for us,” said McAllister. “We have diversity and success. It’s amazing how little of our teachers’ time is taken away because of the diverse student population.”

He said people often ask: What’s the secret?

The answer, McAllister said, is good teaching.

And in many ways, the classroom teachers said, the diversity is an asset.

There are no problems with teasing or singling out someone for racial or socioeconomic differences.

“The children see others from so many different places so why would anyone make fun of another?’ asked Ruddock. “Everyone is aware of the fact tat they are different, too.”

It’s a challenge that goes even beyond language skills for the teachers to find a common experience for children from so many different countries, McAllister said.  “But that’s what makes the Butler community so rich,” he pointed out. “Here we learn that there are so many stories that reflect the ‘American experience.’”

Andrea Masciari September 05, 2012 at 05:16 PM
Both of my sons attended the Butler School, Belmont's hidden gem, and I wouldn't have had it any other way

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