pursuit of education

This Burmese refugee is using her own experience to guide others on a path toward success

PHOTO: Shelby Mullis
Pency Engmawii revises Rachel Hmuaki's paragraph during an English 2 class Wednesday. Engmawii left her Burmese village in Myanmar to pursue an education in the United States.

With an infectious smile, Pency Engmawii greeted 17 adult students Wednesday at the Excel Center-University Heights, a high school specifically designed for adults to obtain their high school diploma.

The gray chairs in the school’s English classroom are all occupied by eager students, and up until last year, Engmawii was one of them.

Engmawii, 28, graduated from the Excel Center in May 2017. Now, she’s back as an aide in her old class, and she’s using her own unique experience as a refugee from Myanmar, also known as Burma, to mentor and tutor other students who are new to the English language.

Engmawii’s journey to the Excel Center wasn’t easy, but with a high school diploma in her hand, she’s now on track to complete her degree at Ivy Tech Community College.

At 21 years old, Engmawii, the youngest of 12 children, left her small Burmese village in pursuit of education, something she said is unattainable in her home country.

Education in Myanmar can be hard to come by for poorer families, Engmawii said. Some schools must charge students a range of fees, including for textbooks and uniforms, making it difficult to afford.

“My family wanted a better life for me,” Engmawii told Chalkbeat.

After more than two years in Malaysia as a refugee, Engmawii was able to travel to the United States — alone. She came to Indianapolis because the city has one of the largest Burmese refugee populations in the United States.

About 14,000 Burmese-Chin refugees now live on the south side of the city, the IndyStar reported last year. 

"My family wanted a better life for me."Pency Engmawii

Engmawii said Indianapolis was promising since it provided an affordable place to settle with educational opportunities.

She learned about the Excel Center through her pastor, who was aware of Engmawii’s desire to learn. In 2012, she enrolled, a decision that changed her life.

Jessamon Jones was one of Engmawii’s first teachers at the Excel Center. Before becoming an education guide and mentor, Jones taught English to newcomers like Engmawii. In March, 44 percent of Excel Center-University Heights students were English language learners, up 20 percentage points from last year.

“It’s amazing because she was having those struggles of learning the English and taking the standardized tests and all that stuff you have to do to get the diploma,” Jones said. “She conquered that.”

Balancing a full-time job at a local Walmart warehouse with her courses at the Excel Center made it more challenging for Engmawii to find time to study English.

In addition to her English courses, which she retook multiple times in order to pass, Engmawii arranged times to meet with instructors outside of class. During this time, she would have basic conversations with teachers using the vocabulary she learned.

But Engmawii said learning English continues to be a challenge. She still spends hours each week practicing.

The language barrier even led her to change her career aspirations. Originally, Engmawii wanted to become a math teacher, but because she is not extremely fluent in English, she said she discovered another passion — accounting. She is currently pursuing a degree in accounting at Ivy Tech.

“I speak English, but it’s not very well,” Engmawii said. “So I am decided about accounting, it is better to me.”

But Holly Hathaway Thompson, Engmawii’s English 2 teacher, said she still hopes to see Engmawii come back to the Excel Center and lead a classroom in the future.

Engmawii serves as an aide in Thompson’s classroom on Wednesdays, helping other English language learners understand the curriculum. She also uses the class as a method of practicing her own English.

“I could see her being a teacher very, very well,” Thompson said. “She’s very good at making connections with [other students] and helping them feel safe and know that they’re not stupid. I think some English language learners feel stupid, and they’re not.”

On this particular Wednesday, Engmawii is helping students understand R.A.C.E, or Restate, Answer, Cite, and Explain — a concept used to write essays over specified reading materials. Thompson assigns Engmawii one half of the classroom to revise their R.A.C.E. paragraphs and offer assistance where it’s needed.

When Thompson steps out of the classroom for a brief moment Wednesday morning, it’s left in the hands of Engmawii.

“How long you take to graduate?” asks Rosa, a new student in Thompson’s class.

“Five years,” Engmawii responds with a sense of pride in her voice. She accomplished something that seemed impossible just six years earlier.

And in that moment, Rosa’s face shines with what looked like a glimmer of hope for her own future.

In the Classroom

How Memphis students came face to face with the painful history in their school’s backyard

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Students at Memphis Grizzlies Preparatory Charter School examine a historical marker meant to share a more complete story of Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate general, slave trader, and early leader of the Ku Klux Klan.

A few yards across from the parking lot of an all-boys Memphis school lies a small, tree-lined courtyard, where a class of eighth-graders studies a large historical marker.

The new marker tells them that children were sold as slaves in this spot. An older, nearby marker had failed to tell the whole story — Nathan Bedford Forrest, the subject of the marker, made Memphis a hub of the slave trade near that busy downtown corner.

The boys at Memphis Grizzlies Preparatory Charter School, who are nearly all black, earlier learned about the painful legacy while watching an episode of “America Divided,” a documentary series featuring celebrities exploring inequality across the nation. The episode featured the Memphis campaign that eventually removed a nearby statue of Forrest, a Confederate general, slave trader, and early leader of the Ku Klux Klan.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Memphis Grizzlies Preparatory Charter School students visit county commissioners Tami Sawyer and Van Turner (back row), who were key in the city’s campaign to remove Confederate statues.

Being so close to such upsetting history that only recently has bubbled to the surface of public display was a lot for eighth-grader Joseph Jones to take in.

“I can’t believe that this history is right outside our school,” he said. “I think I barely know what happened in Memphis. So many things that I don’t know, that I need to know, and that I want to know, happened in this very city.”

Lately, Memphis — along with several other cities in the South — has been grappling with how tell the complete stories of historical figures who many felt were war heroes, but who also contributed to the enslavement of black Americans.

The new and larger historical marker about Forrest was erected on the 50th anniversary of the assassination of civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr. He was killed two miles from the all-boys charter school. City leaders vowed and succeeded in taking down Forrest’s statue, which had loomed downtown for more than 100 years, before honoring King’s legacy.

From the archives: Meet the Memphis educator leading the charge to take down her city’s Confederate monuments

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Teacher Tim Green travels to several schools to teach students how to express their emotions in a healthy way.

Tim Green, a teacher at Grizzlies Prep, prompted discussion among students about how to use their newfound knowledge about history in positive ways to improve their city. It’s part of Green’s larger effort to teach students how to express their feelings on difficult topics.

Recently, that has meant delving into the city’s racial history, which is fraught with tragedy that has not been fully reckoned with in public discourse.

“Me forming this class was a way to talk about some of things we deal with and one of those things is our past,” he recently told students. “As African-American men — and African-Americans in general — we don’t have a clear understanding of where we came from.”

Students said their initial feelings after watching the documentary included anger, sadness, and fear.

“It kind of makes me feel scared because you know your parents and your teachers say history repeats itself,” said student Sean Crump. “So, we never know if it’s going to happen again because some things that people said are going to stop have came back. … That makes me feel scared of when I grow up.”

Watching the documentary was the first part of the class’ history exploration before meeting with two key people who organized the removal of Forrest’s statue at the county government building about two blocks from the school.

The documentary shows actor Jussie Smollett interviewing the younger brother of Jesse Lee Bond, a 20-year-old black sharecropper. He was killed in a Memphis suburb in 1939 after asking for a receipt at a store owned by a prominent white family that depended on the credit balances of its black customers.

The brother, Charlie Morris, said he was ready to go on a revengeful rampage after learning his brother had been shot, castrated, dragged by a tractor, and staked to the bottom of a nearby river. He said he still carried the trauma, but doesn’t carry the hate he felt nearly 80 years ago.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Students watch as Charlie Morris, the brother of lynching victim Jesse Lee Bond, explains the racism that led to his brother’s murder in an episode of “America Divided.”

“The first step to equal justice is love. Where there’s no love, you can forget the rest,” he said in the documentary. Morris died in June at the age of 98.

After the episode ended, the class was silent for a moment. The first question from a student: Were the people who lynched Jesse Lee Bond ever convicted?

The answer made one student gasp in shock, but was predictable for anyone familiar with the history of lynching in America during the Jim Crow era that legalized racial segregation. Two men were charged and tried for Bonds’ murder, but were quickly acquitted.

Students seamlessly tied the past to racism and violence they see in their city today.

“I feel sad because there’s lynchings and people — mostly white Americans — they know there’s lynchings and they know what the Confederacy did to cause those,” said student Tristan Ficklen.

“I would have felt the same too because all he asked for was a receipt,” student Jireh Joyner said of Morris’ initial reaction to Bond’s death. “And now these days there’s still police brutality and it’s hurtful.”

In the Classroom

How an Indianapolis district became a national model for teacher leadership

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Amy Peddie, a teacher at Southport High School, helps a student on an assignment in her class.

Kelly Wilber had been teaching in Perry Township for about seven years when the school district rolled out a new approach to teacher evaluation, mentorship, and coaching — and she felt the change almost immediately.

“I felt like I was a good teacher before,” Wilber recalled. “I mean, I studied all the things in the books, and we had professional development.”

But when the district started using the new approach, the TAP System, “we found the answer of what we needed to do to help our students grow,” said Wilber, who teaches fifth grade at Southport Elementary School.

The TAP System was developed as a strategy for improving instruction, and it is popular in Indiana, where state policymakers have encouraged schools to adopt the system. Perry Township has used it for seven years, and the district has become something of a poster child for the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching, the group behind TAP. On Thursday, the nonprofit recognized Perry Township schools with the organization’s first National Award of Excellence for Educator Effectiveness, which came with a $50,000 prize.

TAP relies on mentors and teacher leaders who are paid stipends to coach their colleagues — a tactic that’s becoming popular among schools as a way to allow experienced teachers to take on more responsibility without entirely leaving the classroom. Each week, groups of teachers meet with master teachers who work with them on strategies they can use in the classroom, like how to tackle word problems or use manipulatives in math.

The model also has guidance on common problems teachers encounter. In the first year of TAP, for example, Wilber had a student who said he wasn’t interested in school or homework and told her, “I’m only here because my brother came here, and I like to do what my brother does,” she recalled.

Wilber began trying techniques that TAP recommended, like using his name during model lessons and having him read the learning objectives. Soon, he was raising his hand in class.

“I felt like I knew what I needed to do because we had so much training and support,” Wilber said.

Perry Township has an unusual set of challenges. Nearly three-quarters of students are poor enough to get subsidized meals. About 25 percent of students are English language learners, and many of them are refugees fleeing religious persecution in Burma.

There is not much outside research on whether TAP improves student test scores. A 2012 study of the results in Chicago found that the program did not raise test scores, but it increased teacher retention. TAP’s developer has disputed the validity of the study, saying the TAP program was not properly implemented in Chicago schools.

But in Perry Township, educators say the approach is helping improve student results.

“If you want to make a difference with kids who are in poverty as well as have a lot of cultural differences, this format and this foundation is the best thing that you can utilize,” Superintendent Patrick Mapes said.

Joe Horvath, a master teacher at Southport High School, said his role is the same as coaches in other districts. Instead of having his own classroom, he is in charge of training 28 other teachers. One day a week, he meets with those teachers in groups. The rest of the week, he observes teachers in their classes, gives feedback, and models lessons.

“We are all on the same level,” Horvath said. “It’s not like I am their boss in any way shape or form. This is just something that allows us to continue to give a peer-to-peer feedback thing that I think is kind of missing sometimes.”