ST. LOUIS — The six Burmese girls sat together at a picnic table in the corner of the courtyard, a good distance from the rest of the students.
They talked softly, some sketching, others finishing their lunch. At another table, girls from the African countries of Ethiopia, Sudan and Eritrea were a bit more gregarious. Next to them, Mexican children gathered to enjoy the mild August day.
At the New American Preparatory Academy, children from 23 countries speaking 18 languages come together to study, assigned to one campus to get better acclimated to U.S. culture.
"They are in need of a place where they can catch their breath," said Nahed Chapman, who runs the academy and serves as executive director of the English for Speakers of Other Languages program, better known as ESOL, for St. Louis Public Schools.
The academy is an expansion of the programs the district offers its new students from foreign lands. The district this year opened the old Gallaudet School for the Deaf on South Grand Boulevard next to the International Welcome School to create a campus environment and plenty of room for growth for the newcomers. The two buildings are now formally known as the academy.
Most of the 226 students came here as refugees, forced to flee their countries because of war or other political conflict. Some have been here a few years, others a few months. Typically, they would be placed in a regular school setting after testing to determine proficiency in English and other core subjects.
What St. Louis Public Schools administrators realized, though, is that without a more fully immersed program, the children can get lost in the system, often dropping out. The culture shock and language barriers are simply too much.
"There are some students who come from a country where they have never gone to a school, were living in a refugee camp," Chapman said. "It can take six months just to keep them within the confines of the school, to understand the process. Some have never held a pencil."
Four years ago, at the urging of Chapman, St. Louis school leaders agreed to open the International Welcome School in the same building where the district ran some of its ESOL programs. It included a preschool and adult education classes.
But as the school district continued to close and consolidate buildings to save money and better serve its dwindling enrollment, the International Welcome School was moved to a smaller facility — the former Kottmeyer Big Picture High School on South Grand — along with related family services, after one year. As a result, the district dropped ninth-graders from the Welcome School, continuing to serve kindergartners through eighth-graders. The ninth-graders ended up at their regular neighborhood school, Roosevelt High, for the next two years. It didn't go well.
"The level of need was so intense. And the school was so large. It was just overwhelming," Chapman said.
Superintendent Kelvin Adams said the district noticed the increasing number of ESOL students dropping out at Roosevelt and knew a change was needed.
"We felt it important to offer a place where they feel supported," Adams said.
Next door to Kottmeyer, which became the International Welcome School, sat the shuttered Gallaudet building. Chapman saw it as an opportunity, not only to bring ninth-graders back to the program, but to expand it to 10th-graders this year and all grade levels within two years.
The district's Special Administrative Board agreed, and workers quickly began getting the first floor of the circa 1925 Gallaudet building ready to reopen for this school year. It includes a small theater and a gym.
Adams said the cost to reopen the building was $300,000 to $400,000. It had been shut for only two years so there wasn't major work to do, he said.
Staff members split their time between the two school buildings, which are connected with a courtyard and share a cafeteria. Adams said the amount of money to reopen Gallaudet for a new use was worth it to keep children in school. He points to International Welcome School's track record.
"Data supports the students there have higher attendance, fewer behavior problems and do better academically," Adams said.
Last year, the average daily attendance at the Welcome School was 96.2 percent, about 3 percent higher than across the district. The school of 183 students logged just five disciplinary infractions. No students dropped out, and principals from neighborhood schools reported that the students were better prepared after a stop through the refugees program.
Since Adams came on board in 2008, he has vowed to get the school district reaccredited. It moved a notch closer this year, based on the most recent Missouri Assessment Program test scores. He said designing programs for students such as the refugees was key to improving the overall academic performance of the district.
The academy is technically not a school, but rather an enhanced part of the district's ESOL program where students stay only long enough to get their English and test scores to a level where they can learn on par with students in their neighborhood schools.
"Students remain enrolled in their home school and graduate from their home school," Adams said. Chapman said students typically stayed in the program up to two years, although some stayed longer.
She said a gradual acclimation to the school system was necessary for success. Keeping the children in schools where their parents often come for English classes and their younger siblings can attend day care makes them feel safer and more confident, she said. Having the family bond is important for refugees who are in a foreign country and know few people, she said.
Ma Thida works with the 15 Burmese students who attend the academy and with their families to help make the transition to America a smooth one. She is glad to see the ninth- and 10th-graders included in the program. Four of the Burmese students had been at Roosevelt.
"I'm so happy this school opened," said Thida, who came to the U.S. 15 years ago. "This school is good for our culture."
She explained that hugging and shaking hands is not done in Burma (now known as Myanmar).
"We don't touch each other" when we greet, she said. In a smaller setting with other refugees, it's easier to explain differing cultures while learning what is typical behavior in the U.S., she said.
Moussa Ndiaye was one of eight boys from six countries sitting at a cafeteria table, eating and laughing. The ninth-grader arrived in the U.S. from the western Africa country of Senegal about 2 1/2 months ago, and has found it easy to fit in. He knew some English before moving here, although his native language is French. He easily joked with the boys from Congo, Iran and Mexico and said he was happy to be in America.
But he seemed stuck for an answer when asked what it was he liked about his new country.
"Everything," he finally blurted.
It's only been a few weeks, but Chapman said responses such as Moussa's give her hope that the district is on the right track by moving ninth- and 10th-graders into the refugee program and temporarily out of Roosevelt and other neighborhood schools.
There will be time for the trappings of traditional high school. But for now, prom and football games can wait.