- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 6, 2003

CHICAGO, Jan. 30 (UPI) — Along a moderately busy street in Chicago's ethnically and economically diverse Uptown neighborhood sits a charter school with the mission of educating the children of immigrants — and their parents.

Passages, whose $1 million annual budget comes mainly from state funding and Chicago Public Schools, was the brainchild of Asian Human Services and currently boasts an enrollment of 160 children from a dozen countries, including Bosnia, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, China, Pakistan and the Congo to name a few. When some of the children first passed through the school's bright red doors, they spoke no English, with as many as 30 percent having only limited English.

The school has 12 teachers — half of whom were foreign-born and another four first generation Americans. None is certified but all have been classified as highly qualified by the Board of Education and are working toward certification.

Principal Rajeshri Gandhi lovingly boasts about her students' academic prowess and the emphasis teachers put on both language arts and mathematics.

The school, which is near four public schools, draws students from the Far South Side as well as the immediate neighborhood and currently goes up only to fourth grade. Gandhi hopes to add a fifth grade next year but has no immediate plans to expand the school beyond its 250-student charter. It first opened its doors in September 2001.

Children aren't the only focus.

"We do a lot of parent education," said Sudha A. Bhatt, the community outreach coordinator. "Some of these people come from countries where education is not important. They don't understand what it means to go to school."

The school makes no effort to teach multi-lingually.

"We're total immersion English," Gandhi said, adding, however, some translation may be involved in dealing with parents.

Joyce C. Marks, director of administration and communication for Asian Human Services and a veteran Chicago schoolteacher, tells the story of a young South Korean girl whose grandmother picked her up from school each day. The teacher would have a few words with the grandmother after school and the grandmother would nod politely, smile and otherwise indicate she understood. When the parents met with the teacher for the first time, they learned the teacher had been telling the grandmother she thought the little girl needed glasses.

"Obviously, the grandmother didn't understand," Marks said. "That won't happen here."

In a third grade classroom on the second floor of the quarter-block long building, is Gloria, an immigrant from the Congo. She doesn't remember much about her homeland, just lots of the open, empty spaces.

The girl, about four-feet tall, her hair meticulously braided and with a facial structure that promises to make her a real beauty, says much of her family is still back in Africa, including several sisters. She's a little shy. It helps that one of her sisters and a cousin are also in her class.

Kesan, 10, has been in the United States more than two years now. This summer, he and his family went back to their western Chinese village for a visit.

"It was really hot," Kesan remembered. "And the electricity kept going off. We were frying in the heat."

For an 11-year-old, Heena is politically aware. Her parents emigrated from Pakistan but she was born in the United States and all she knows of her parents' homeland is that "it's hot, really hot and they have all these lizards and really big bugs. I'm creeped out by bugs." She also knows Pakistanis "don't have much freedom. I like that the United States has rights. I like being free."

(This is the fourth in a four-part series on immigration)

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