Uptown: Immigrants find educational oasis

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Passages Charter

Photo by John Booz

Passages Charter

Shiva Singh Khalsa and his wife, Shabad Kaur Khalsa, went through more than a dozen schools before they found the perfect fit for their son, Amar Dev.

The Khalsas are Sikhs and Amar, 6, wears his long hair tied in a ball and practices a vegetarian diet. They finally decided on Passages Charter, an elementary school founded to serve a diverse immigrant student population.

“My wife looked at 13 schools—the best schools in the city—and nothing held a candle to Passages,” Khalsa says.

Since it opened in 2001, Passages has become an educational haven for immigrants and refugees from four continents. It also attracted non-immigrants who liked the school for its small class sizes and diversity. Asian Human Services, a multi-service social service agency, got the idea to open the school after years of watching immigrant Asian students and their parents struggle through their transition to new communities and new schools.

“We had a city-funded program where our counselors went to the schools and they were finding immigrants having a very difficult time adjusting,” says CEO Abha Pandya.

At first, Asian Human Services envisioned a school where students speak in their native languages while easing into American culture. “But, lo and behold, when we did these focus groups, we found that parents were saying, ‘We really want our children to learn English. We want them to mainstream,'” Pandya recalls. After assessing parents’ concerns, the agency opted instead to develop an English immersion model.

Over the years, Passages has continued to grow. With 229 students this year, enrollment is up 51 percent since 2002. But shifting demographics have changed the composition. “Our focus was essentially on the Asian community,” Pandya says. As the world’s geo-political situation has changed, Passages has served waves of Bosnians, Croatians, and now refugees from Sudan and Ethiopia, she says.

On the decline is the proportion of Passages students who live in Uptown. The number of community residents enrolled has remained stable, but with more children attending who live elsewhere, the percentage of resident students is only 24 percent. Pandya says more and more of the population that Asian Human Services works with lives in West Ridge, Rogers Park and the western suburbs.

She speculates increasing housing costs in Uptown is forcing more and more immigrants out of Uptown. “We find them being pushed farther north or farther northwest or literally out of the city into the suburbs,” Pandya says. In Uptown, “they had good networks; they had reasonably good housing; they had jobs. Now, suddenly, they’re getting dislodged.”

Non-immigrant African Americans and Latinos comprise a sizable chunk of Passages student body, too. Among the students attending Passages this year, 34 percent are Asian, 27 percent are African or African American, 19 percent are Latino, and 20 percent are white, Arab or Eastern European, according to school officials.

‘He fits in better’

The diversity of students makes for an interesting mix of ideas and increases students’ comfort level.

When teacher Michael Tajchman holds his writer’s workshop for 3rd-graders, the class includes Tobi, whose family is from Nigeria, Nasreddine from Algeria and Jada from Rogers Park.

Khalsa says his son’s best friends from school are Nigerian, Korean and Japanese. “Passages is authentic diversity,” he says. Amar Dev “fits in better than he would at a Montessori school.”

Amar Dev has a teacher, whom he calls Mr. Karl, who is an African American with dreadlocks—long hair just like his.

Amar Dev accepts the school’s diversity as no big deal. He’s more concerned about seeing Mr. Karl and his friends and playing with the four Hermit crabs in the classroom aquarium.

Some parents at Passages got wind of the school through Asian Human Services; others found out by word of mouth. “My neighbor told me it’s a good school,” said Zeenath Unissa, whose daughter Masnah, 4, is in pre-kindergarten. Masnah’s family is from India and two languages—Urdu and Hindi—are spoken at home.

While many immigrant families encourage their children to concentrate on English, Principal Sally Ewing encourages families to speak their native language at home.

A 5-year-old who is used to doing things in Vietnamese and is suddenly told she can only speak English loses the thinking skills she’s been relying on, says Ewing. “A lot of families don’t understand. They want their children to learn English and move on.”