The elevator doors open on the 6th floor at 901 Walnut, where the district’s administrative offices used to be. Now you step off the elevator and some empty tables and chairs are what you see. But that’s not what Vinh Nguyen sees.
“That’s where we will have coffee chats,” says Nguyen, DMPS’s ELL Program Coordinator who recently added a new responsibility to his job description. He’s supervising the district’s Center for New Americans, a ground floor function housed in top floor facilities.
The coffee chats that Nguyen envisions will be opportunities for assimilating refugees from all over the world to practice commonplace social interactions they’ve learned about in classes offered elsewhere on the 6th floor.
One of the elevator cars opens and a family steps out into a vast unknown. Waiting to greet them is Pablo Ortega, Director of English Language Learner Programs for DMPS. He grins, extends a hand and escorts them to what used to be a conference room. Now it’s a registration center, the beginning of a complicated process of absorption.
Around the room interpreters are gathering basic information like names and ages in Arabic, Nepalese, Burmese and Kunama. One young girl clad in an Iowa Hawkeye hoodie sits patiently next to her mother, answering questions. They arrived in America three days ago from Burma.
Families like these used to come to the district one at a time via the DMPS Welcome Center. The Welcome Center is equipped to help families new to the district. But when you add the layer of being new to the country, in many cases from refugee camps, the need has grown for more specialized services. And the Center for New Americans has risen to meet it.
Julianna Dubin is the liaison between the U.S. Committee for Refugees & Immigrants (USCRI) and DMPS. USCRI and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops are the refugee resettlement agencies that partner with the district.
“Now that this center is here I can bring families by the van-full,” Dublin said. “I started with USCRI when I was in AmeriCorps and I decided to stay with it because I love children and I love schools. The kind of work that is being done here is a wonderful thing to be part of.”
In another former conference space down the hall, an unusual class is underway that Nguyen reluctantly calls adult kindergarten.
“I don’t mean any disrespect, but the people who are in there learning basic English phrases like how to introduce themselves are in many cases not even literate in their native languages when they come to us. We need to teach them as well as their children.”
That is part of the challenge the district tackles on behalf of a community trying to absorb a refugee population. The resettlement agencies sponsor families for three months. After that, they are on their own.
Laura Secory is a DMPS Bilingual Family Liaison who came to America from Mexico City 20 years ago and has worked for the district for 13 years. Now she’s assigned to the Center for New Americans. Besides English her other fluency is in her native Spanish. But she is well-versed in all of the universal body languages that put newcomers at ease.
“The feedback we get from these families is very positive,” Secory said while welcoming a batch of families Tuesday morning. Feedback? How do you gauge feedback? You look around the room and read people’s faces. People who, on the one hand are relieved to have escaped dire situations in their homelands, but on the other are frightened to be strangers in a land that’s foreign to them in all ways.
Think about it. They could have called it any one of a number of things. The Refugee Center, for instance, or the Resettlement Center perhaps. But they chose to call it the Center for New Americans. It has a nice ring to it. Like the people who run the place know where it’s all going to lead, even if the people it serves don’t quite know what to expect – yet.
Center for New Americans Mission
To serve and help acclimate newly arrived language minority families into a new environment and school setting.
Goals of the Center for New Americans
- Provide tools, direction, and support to language minority parents and community members to positively impact the academic success of their children through access to the opportunities available within the Des Moines Public Schools
- Increase engagement and involvement of language minority families and community members in the Des Moines Public Schools.
- Create a group of knowledgeable and committed language minority parents and community members in each language group so they can actively support school and community efforts to benefit children while encouraging others to do the same.