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ENID, Okla. (AP) — Enid's school district is unique among those in Oklahoma assisting minority groups.
While most state schools face a rising non-English-speaking Hispanic population, Enid has an ever-growing Marshall Islands population, one of the few Marshallese population centers in the United States, The Oklahoman reported (http://bit.ly/1DSsqQj ).
Enid has the fourth largest concentration of Marshallese nationals in the United States, according to the Marshallese embassy. Two Enid elementary schools have more than 25 percent of its student population made up of Marshallese pupils going through its English language program.
"Enid is becoming a Marshallese cultural center," says Amber Fitzgerald, communications director for Enid schools.
Of the 958 Enid students in English language learners (ELL) programs, 381 are from the Marshall Islands.
"Some of them speak zero English," says Vivian Bunch, federal programs director for the district.
The Republic of the Marshall Islands is 2,300 miles southwest of Hawaii with a population of 68,000 scattered over 29 atolls. Governed by the United States for nearly four decades, the islands are now in free association with the U.S., allowing Marshallese citizens to live and work in the U.S.
Enid's connection with the islands began in the 1970s when Disciple of Christ missionaries working through Phillips University, then a local college, visited the islands.
"I think Marshallese students hear about us and send their students to us," said Jennifer Patterson, ELL coordinator for Enid High.
To cope with the inflow of students, Enid has hired two Marshallese liaisons to help with cultural understanding. Funding comes from the state and federal sources.
"We have started up Islander Clubs at Enid High and Longfellow Middle School with Marshallese students teaching us about their culture and things like their food," said Sherri Hendrie, instructional coach for Enid schools. She points to the fact Coolidge Elementary recently hosted a cultural fair where Marshallese students and parents played a major role.
"It's our job to reach out for them," said Randall Rader, assistant superintendent for elementary education. "Parents are now at ease with coming into our buildings."
The Marshallese students coming to Enid are from across that nation and not just one or two particular locations in the island chain, so there are many differing dialects among them, Radar said.
Patterson has been reaching out to the students as both an academic and personal guide. She has found strong friendships are made easily with the Marshall Islands community. She has even attended a Marshallese funeral.
"Marshallese students come into my office in droves," Patterson said. Her presence and the attention other district officials have given the Marshallese is reflected in the improvement of student attendance. One way the students get attention is through a weekly grade check to see how they are doing academically.
"It's all about relationships," Fitzgerald points out. Her office hand delivers newsletters and bulletins to the two Marshallese churches in the community.
Fitzgerald said the district takes every opportunity to hire former Marshallese students whenever it can.
"It is difficult to find someone who knows the language," she added.
Fitzgerald said when the district noticed a rising Marshallese minority within its district, it sought advice from nearby Springdale, Arkansas. Springdale has the largest concentration of Marshallese in the U.S. and a Republic of the Marshall Islands consulate is in Arkansas.
"Their language is more complex than Spanish," said Rick Schaeffer, spokesman for Springdale schools. Five years ago, Springdale had 300 Marshallese students; today it has 2,000, he said.
"Work brought them here initially during the Walmart building boom," Schaeffer said. "They realized how well they were being treated and it brought others here."
Information from: The Oklahoman, http://www.newsok.com
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