DeKALB – Principal Cristy Meyer might not be able to list all 23 countries represented in Jefferson Elementary School's student body, but she's keenly aware of what a diverse school she runs.
Jefferson, 211 McCormick Drive in DeKalb is the designated DeKalb School District 428 school for English language learner students. While some of those students could be from DeKalb, many have come other countries such as Turkey, South Korea, Kosovo or Spain.
“We have a little League of Nations here,” said Meyers. “I think about how rich of an education they're getting here. They have a little slice of the world.”
Having a 25-person class with students from nine different countries is pretty standard at Jefferson, Meyer said, adding that kindergarten classes are often the most diverse. Of Jefferson's 280 students, 80 are English language learners.
Jefferson's diversity means students there get enhanced, sometimes impromptu, lessons on other cultures, while staff sometimes have different challenges. For example, Jefferson leaders are seeking a language tutor who speaks Vietnamese.
Also, many schools throughout DeKalb County have multicultural lessons, foreign exchange students and special programs geared toward students whose native language is Spanish.
In Sycamore School District 427, the cultures curriculum expands the experiences of older students, culminating in a mandatory, yearlong world cultures class in their freshman or sophomore year of high school.
"We want students to have a global understanding," said District 427 Curriculum Director Kristine Webster. "Oceans and country lines don't separate us anymore."
Cultural curiosity in the classroom
Jefferson third-grader Becky Duda, 9, has classmates from China, Malaysia, Indonesia, Mexico and Spain this school year. She's learned about the Chinese New Year, how to write Japanese characters and many other lessons.
“I like that if you're curious, you can ask them about their culture, and they'll probably know,” Duda said during a multicultural night at her school where students and their parents were treated to cuisine and entertainment from different countries.
Fellow third-grader Galal Osman, 9, likes when classmates ask him about his home country of Sudan or his previous home in London. Pausing during a conversation in Arabic with a student from Morocco, Osman, said "great" and "awesome" would be the two English words to describe going to school with people from all over the world.
Students speak about a dozen languages at Jefferson. The school has three teachers focused on English as a second language and five primary language tutors. All teachers are trained to teach in ways that facilitates ELL students' learning, though.
Fifth-grade teacher Bill Johnson incorporates more visuals in his classroom, which this year includes students from Vietnam, Guatemala, Mexico and Saudi Arabia.
“They start here with varying degrees of English,” Johnson said. “Sometimes they don't know what you're saying, so you have to learn different strategies. They also learn a lot from watching their peers.”
NIU's international influence
Northern Illinois University's push to recruit more international students fuels the abundance of students from other countries at Jefferson, Meyer said.
This school year, international students at NIU brought with them 32 dependents between kindergarten- and high-school-age, university spokesman Paul Palian said. The benefits of going to school amid such diversity are the same for school-age children as they are for university students, Palian said.
“We are a part of a global society,” Palian said. “So the opportunity to learn first-hand from students and their parents could lead to a better understanding of those cultures without leaving DeKalb.”
Mohammed Abahussain, 36, moved from Saudi Arabia to the United States in 2006. He came to DeKalb last year to earn a doctoral degree in instructional technology, bringing with him a wife and two young children, including his son Mansour, 6, who attends Jefferson.
“He's seeing the world from a different window,” Abahussain said. “I think this will open his mind. It's a beautiful experience. You can travel all over the world just being in this country.”
Abahussain plans to return to Saudi Arabia after completing his degree in 2016, but said the things his family experienced in DeKalb won't be forgotten.
“We are proud to show others what we have, just as we are expecting others to show us what they have,” Abahussain said. “We will bring what we have seen here to people in Saudi Arabia.”