A Diverse Population Enriches School District
By Stacey Hollenbeck
To determine her district’s future demographics, Mary Fertakis picks up a newspaper and scans the international section. “Wherever there is a major issue taking place somewhere in the world, we know those children will be in our school district in about 10 months,” says Fertakis, president of the school board in Tukwila, Wash.
Located near Seattle’s international airport and home to numerous apartment buildings, Tukwila has been designated as a refugee relocation area by the International Rescue Committee and other organizations. It’s a safe haven for those fleeing oppression and host to one of the most diverse suburban school districts in the country.
The 2,500 students at Tukwila’s five schools speak 65 different languages, including Bosnian, Somali, and Russian. Sixty percent are English language learners (ELLs).
Because refugee families receive just six months of free room and board before having to survive on their own, poverty and student turnover are major obstacles for the district. Fertakis says 71 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, and up to 40 percent leave the district in a year.
Cultural, financial, and language barriers have made educating students more difficult, but school officials aren’t wasting time. Instead, they organize cultural celebrations, reach out to immigrant families, and provide English instruction that caters to students at all stages of comprehension.
Fertakis boasts about the advantages of a Tukwila education. “Students are so culturally competent,” she says. “You think you’ve walked into the United Nations when you walk into our schools.”
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