Recently, the NEA team had a chance to cover the One Sylvania Rally for Refugees where students, educators and community members stood united to hear stories from refugees and community leaders, and learn ways to make a difference and promote tolerance and unity.
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This week, we had the chance to follow up with Adam Fineske, Executive Director of Teaching and Learning for the Sylvania School District; Shane Lakatos, Founder of Social Services for the Arab Community; and Megan Picott, educator and Sylvania Education Association member. Each of these folks played a part in creating a district-wide climate of tolerance. Below is an excerpt from our discussion.
NEA: It seems like the change in the Sylvania community started with the schools. Can you talk a little more about that?
Adam: The Sylvania school district is the second largest employer here. We are the heart of this community. And when the community started to change, that is when we went all in to address those changes.
In the last five to ten years Sylvania has changed culturally and socio-economically. More of our students are receiving free or reduced lunch and we are home to a more diverse population – 25 Syrian refugee families are a part of our community. A proactive approach to how we instruct and communicate with families made the difference in our school.
Shane: My wife and I founded the Social Services for the Arab Community to help immigrants and refugees in our community to find their way in their new country. Sylvania is led by really progressive thinkers and they engaged us in a discussion about how we could better help the school district meet some of the new challenges they might face given the global refugee crisis.
We help educators understand the different needs of immigrant children and refugee children. We are proactively thinking about getting support to children who have gaps in their education because they’ve been living in refugee camps or children who suffer from PTSD.
It’s about how we can help these kids. With that kind of attitude things go really far.
Megan: It was just about a year ago that my colleague and the President of the Sylvania Education Association, Dan Greenberg approached me about joining the Advancing Collaborative Education team- we call it ACES. And in just a year we went from a team of five to a team of 80 educators trained in cultural competency – honestly the training was the best one I have been to in 16 years in education. We walked away with concrete plans for our schools.
NEA: It sounds like some really interesting things are happening. What do you see as the challenges ahead?
Shane: I look at challenges as opportunities. We all watch the news and we see what is happening in the world right now. The refugee crisis isn’t getting any better and we are going to see more families reuniting here in our communities and we need to be ready to welcome them.
We live in a global world and we want our children to understand how to operate within it. Having students join us from Syria or Somalia or Dubai shouldn’t be thought of as a burden, like oh we have to work with more kids who don’t speak English. Instead think of it as an opportunity to teach everyone else about the world. You don’t have to travel overseas to learn a new language and culture!
NEA: What would you offer as advice to other districts who would like to do what Sylvania has done?
Megan: Realize that this doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time. But never underestimate the value of little things, small gestures. In my school one of the programs we implemented was sending an old fashioned, hand written, snail mailed postcard to every family. All the teachers send them to the families in their class, but so do the cafeteria workers and janitors and administrators. For students and families who receive these in the mail it is really touching, and it says to them, “Hey, we think you are special. We value you. We are glad that you are a part of our community.”
Adam: You have to realize that this is an all-in group effort. Change like this can’t just be driven by teachers or just school board or just administrators. You have to find a unified group that will work together as one.
The word that comes to mind the most is collaboration. It doesn’t always mean saying yes. It means hearing each other out and making the best decision for the greater good.