Students, administrators learn as Burmese student population grows in Jenks

With a Burmese student population of 323 and growing, Jenks school employees are taking a step away from the chalkboard and doing some homework themselves.

At the forefront is Jennifer Daves, coordinator of English language development for Jenks Public Schools.

The St. Toribio Romo Immigration Services building at Catholic Charities is among the first stops for Burmese refugees in Tulsa. With a staff of less than a dozen, case managers help hundreds of refugees from Burma and across the globe find a foothold in America. Photo by NICK DEMOSS/SOUTH COUNTY LEADER

Halfway into her seventh year in her current position, she’s seeing an unexpected need arise – an influx of students from Myanmar, known formerly and colloquially as Burma. It’s a wave of students who have never lived in a brick and mortar home, whose parents have never owned a car and whose customs have little in common with those in south Tulsa County.

In Jenks schools, the wave represents a departure from homogeneity.

It’s surprising,” Daves said. “You think south Tulsa is just a suburb, a sleepy little community, but we have our own little multicultural world down here.”

Among English language learners, Burmese students are now second only to Spanish speakers. Daves estimated 60 percent of English learning students are hispanic, 30 percent are Burmese and the remaining 10 percent are a mix of students from around the world.

Some of the challenges are obvious. For students, learning English is the first step. They begin in a sheltered instruction program, which can range from a semester to more than a year, depending on the student. From there, students assimilate into regular classes.

For teachers, Daves said, that time presents a unique challenge, but also an all-too-rare opportunity.

At first, Daves said, teachers were hesitant to take too many Burmese students. Oklahoma requires no background in teaching English language learners, and in an era of high-stakes testing, instruction time is at a premium. A few teachers took the chance, and were surprised by what they found.

“Now teachers have stepped up to the challenge, and there are teachers lining up,” Daves said. “They’re saying ‘Give me a section with these kids,’ because they’re those kids that are coming in and they want to learn. They try so hard, and yeah, it’s challenging, but they work really hard at it, and that’s why teachers want to work with them – to have a classroom full of kids who want to be there, and want to do their homework.”

“When they come into the classrooms it’s like they’re in Disneyland,” Daves said. “They just want to touch everything and play with it, because they’re not used to being around so much stimuli.

“Computers,manipulatives,just all the different activities that we as U.S. citizens take for granted. We think ‘Oh yeah, that’s what’s in a classroom,’ it’s brand new to them.”

Behavior management is key for any successful classroom, but for Burmese students and the staff who direct them, the process is complicated.

“These kids come in and they’ve been in grass huts, dirt floors, bugs and just running around roughhousing, and that’s what they’re used to,” Daves said.

“And then you come to a school where behavior is very prescribed – you walk in lines, you raise your hand when you talk, there’s a learning curve there.”

It’s a learning curve that exists on both sides, and one Daves is working to overcome among staff members.

“For Burmese students, to look an adult in the eye is considered disrespectful,” Daves said. “So if the kid is goofing around outside and the bus driver is trying to get them on the bus, if the child won’t look at him the bus driver might think he’s being disrespectful. But no, culturally,the child is showing the driver respect.”

Their parents face similar struggles.

Amber Knecht is the coordinator of migration and refugee services for Catholic Charities of Tulsa, and her group’s work is the leading reason for the wave of Burmese immigration in recent years.

With help from Chin Do Kham, a Burmese refugee who studied and now teaches at Oral Roberts University, Catholic Charities realized a need to shrink swelling Burmese refugee camps in Malaysia.

Their services focus on Chin Burmese from the largely Christian northern state who flee to Malaysia, India and Thailand, or face harsh persecution. It’s an enormous risk, but one thousands take every year.

“They risk their lives fleeing, because if they’re caught they can be imprisoned, or beaten,” Knecht said. Once arriving in Malaysia, they often face a two to five year wait in a camp, while they wait to be granted refugee status and enter the United States.

With help from Kham, Tulsa has become a popular location for refugees. A longtime advocate of Jenks Public Schools, Kham encourages newcomers to live within the district where his children graduated.

Religion, particularly the freedom to practice Christianity, is key. Southern Tulsa is home to 11 Burmese Christian churches, forming a tight-knit community that continues to draw more residents.

“I’ve asked how they hear about Tulsa in Florida or up in Boston, and they say they’ve heard Tulsa is a very religious city with lots of churches, and it’s an affordable place to live,” Knecht said.

Once housing is secured, with help from Catholic Charities, the priority shifts to finding a job.

“I have yet to meet a refugee that has not wanted to work,” she said.

The prospect of steady work is a major draw for the Chin, who struggle to find work amid persecution from harsh military rule.

“Right when they get here their primary focus is finding a job to support themselves, and a lot of times that causes anxiety because they’re in a completely new culture, they’re not familiar with American customs,” Knecht said. “They don’t have any friends, they don’t speak the language. It causes anxiety, wondering if they’re going to find a job or not.”

But mostly, they do. They work in factories, like AAON and Whirlpool, or in fast food.

“They’re very hard working people, and they get jobs very quickly,” Knecht said. “It’s amazing. They speak no English, but they can find work very quickly.”

Refugees to America receive $925 per person from the federal government. It’s supposed to last three months, with the hope of employment after that.

In reality, Knecht said, it’s more like four to six months before most Burmese can find work.

Once they establish employment, they face a new struggle: getting there.

Vehicles are expensive, and even if they can find one, there’s guarantee they will be able to drive it. Most have never driven a car, much less owned one.

Driver’s education materials aren’t offered in Zomi, or any Burmese dialect. Neither is the licensure test.

“Some have to take the test multiple times because it is in English,” Knecht said. She recalled a client who took it nine times before passing.

But almost all eventually pass, and their pursuit of the American dream is on.

For Pau “Cecilia” Cing, a Burmese refugee and case worker for Catholic Charities, the U.S. represented a place to practice her religion freely.

She fled from northern Burma to Malaysia in 2007, and moved to Pennsylvania in 2009. From there, she took the job with Catholic Charities and now lives in south Tulsa.

Cing said she handles more than 100 cases per year, helping new refugees find housing, transportation and other essentials.

But more than that, she said, she is someone to talk to. Someone who has been through the process and come out successfully.

The Burmese population is expected to grow for about two more years, when Catholic Charities is slated to being winding down their refugee program, Knecht said.

In the meantime, Jenks schools are poised to accept them, help them find their way and send them out with the same lofty goals as any other JHS student.