Nepali refugees transform district culture

Noble P2P students at the Cleveland Zoo in May 2016: (from left, front) Mar'Shai Blythewood, Jazmin Ramsey, Sonu Rai and Samiksha Rai; (back) Kyndall King and Krish Rai. [photo: Tiffany Rowan]

A Noble Elementary School student excitedly announced that he was signing up for Boy Scouts and couldn't wait to “build anything—like build a car and go hiking and treasure maps and stuff. Cool.”

This may not sound remarkable until you learn that this boy was born in a refugee camp on the border of Bhutan and Nepal. His family moved to Cleveland Heights as part of a wave of Nepali refugees that have arrived over the past four years.

These refugees—originally from Bhutan but resettled into U.N. camps in Nepal in the 1990s—now comprise nearly 10 percent of the student population at Noble, and their presence has changed the culture of the entire building.

“We are multicultural in a way we never were before,” said Principal Rachael Coleman. “This has forced the kids to look at what it truly means to be different.

“It’s also forced me, and my staff, to look more closely at how we engage parents. If our Nepali parents can’t read, we have to rely on things like robo-calls. But if they don't have phones, we have to find ways to connect with them one-on-one.”

[Many of] the parents had no formal schooling and are illiterate in all languages. Their children, born as refugees, attended over-crowded “camp schools” taught by teens, so they, too, may be learning to read for the first time. Noble’s staff has had to scramble to meet the vast needs of this population.

Of the school’s numerous support personnel, many are funded through a 21st Century grant secured by the district, as well as through Title I and Title III dollars.

Wendy Craven is the full-time English language teacher, who “pushes in” to her students’ classrooms. “That allows me to support them while they’re learning the core curriculum,” said Craven. “Despite the challenges, this work is easy when you meet the kids. They’re so kind and good and have such a strong work ethic. They absolutely appreciate the opportunities here in America.”

Craven also helps in the Peer to Peer (P2P) mentoring program that pairs Nepali students with native speakers before and after school, four days each week. Tiffany Rowan is the P2P coordinator, a grant-funded position.

The group comprises 33 English language learners and 14 native speakers who gather for 15 hours each week to practice reading, speaking and listening in English through real-world interactions. The children play games, engage in theater productions and create art, including a large mural they painted on the exterior of the building that reads, “E pluribus unum” (“out of many, one”), a perfect description of the new environment at Noble.

P2P students go on field trips to fully understand the American experience, from bowling to visiting a farm.

“We’re always looking for new partnerships,” said Rowan. “Anyone who has an experience to offer to our children, from touring the back of a grocery store to visiting a pet shop to picking apples. They’re all valuable learning experiences.”

Noble staff member Draupadi Pradhan, who immigrated from Nepal in 2012, serves as an interpreter, funded through the grant, and a lunch aide. She’s often invited to parent-teacher conferences, and PTA or schoolwide events, including three P2P Parent Nights each year.

“I am very glad for the opportunity to help,” Pradhan said, “to be near people who speak my own language.”

Monticello Middle School also has a cohort of Nepali refugee students. Kari Queen is the building’s English language teacher for half of each day, and then splits her remaining time between Boulevard and Oxford elementary schools. Ten of her 14 Monticello students are Nepali. Most already speak Nepali and Hindi, so English is their third language. Students come to her during their foreign language block, as teaching them Chinese or Spanish would only confuse matters.

“We work on all aspects of language development, including reading and comprehension, writing, speaking and listening,” said Queen, noting that their “tremendous” progress “might not show up yet in their test scores, but they are functioning in school and in life.”

Queen and Craven agree that their students are picking up social English quickly, helping them integrate into their schools. Their academic English, however, is lagging, especially when it comes to specific content vocabulary in science and social studies.

“But they’ll get there,” promised Queen.

Krissy Dietrich Gallagher

Krissy Dietrich Gallagher is a longtime resident of Cleveland Heights, a graduate of the Heights schools and a former Coventry School teacher. She is a freelance journalist under contract with the CH-UH City School District, and a member of the Steering Committee for Citizens for Our Heights Schools, the volunteer group that runs school campaigns. A version of this article appeared online at

Read More on Schools
Volume 9, Issue 11, Posted 11:18 AM, 11.01.2016