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.

yeshiva findings

After 3-year probe into yeshivas, city admits it was blocked from visiting many schools, found little instruction in math and English

PHOTO: Jackie Schechter
Mayor Bill de Blasio has been accused of delaying an investigation into whether yeshivas provide an adequate secular education.

At some of New York City’s yeshivas, attendance was voluntary when it came time to learn secular subjects like math and English. Students said they didn’t learn math beyond basic division and fractions. None of the students reported receiving steady lessons in science. 

That’s according to a long-delayed probe by the New York City education department into whether some of the city’s private Jewish schools are providing an adequate secular education for students. But even as the city released findings on Thursday, it admitted that it was never able to go inside any high schools and never received a full set of curriculum materials to evaluate — significant gaps for a report that took three years to be released.

In a letter sent to the state education commissioner on Aug. 15, schools Chancellor Richard Carranza asked the state for guidance on how to proceed after a recent change in law that put the state education commissioner in charge of evaluating the schools. The Wall Street Journal first reported on the letter. 

“We deeply believe that all students — regardless of where they attend school — deserve a high-quality education. We will ensure appropriate follow up action is taken based on guidance provided,” Carranza said in a statement.

The letter marks a new phase of an investigation sparked by current and former students and parents who complained they received little instruction in math or English while attending the schools. The city has been accused of delaying the investigation to avoid angering a politically powerful community.

New York requires private schools to provide instruction that is “substantially equivalent” to public schools, and that allows the schools to access public money for things like school security. Students and parents who were interviewed for the probe said they received instruction in math and English for only 90 minutes for four days out of the week, and all but two said they received “little to no” history lessons, according to the city’s letter.

The report finds that some schools have adopted new curriculums in English and math, but officials have not been able to evaluate the new materials because they haven’t received a complete set.

The city also said that officials at eight of the schools they were unable to visit recently gave word that they would schedule meetings.

Read Carranza’s full letter here.

In the Classroom

Carranza aims to speed up anti-bias training for educators, calling it a ‘cornerstone’ of school improvement

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Chancellor Richard Carranza, bottom right, joined New York City principals and superintendents for an anti-bias training in Brooklyn.

After bending fluorescent pipe cleaners into loopy and angular shapes, a group of about 100 New York City principals and superintendents paired up for a chat. Their assignment: to recount their childhood aspirations of what they wanted to be when they grew up.

This was no arts and crafts class — and no ice breaker, either. The Wednesday morning session at Brooklyn Law School was an example of anti-bias training that the education department will now require for every employee who works with students across the country’s largest school system.

After committing $23 million to the work this year, Chancellor Richard Carranza announced at the session that the trainings will be mandatory, and that the city aims to speed up how quickly they happen. The goal is to compress the original four-year roll out to two.

“It’s about us as a community saying we want to change systems so that it privileges all of our students in New York City,” Carranza said. “The evidence right now, I will tell you my friends, is that not all students are being served well.”

Advocates had long agitated for the training, citing disparate rates in school discipline for black and Hispanic students, and high-profile incidents of schools accused of teaching racist lessons in the classroom. They argue that teachers need to be better equipped to serve diverse students as the city moves forward with plans to integrate its starkly segregated schools.

“We have to make school environments the most welcoming places possible for our young people. That includes adults doing personal work,” said Natasha Capers, a coordinator for Coalition for Educational Justice, a parent organization that lobbied for the training.  

Their advocacy has gotten a boost since Carranza became schools chancellor in April, bringing an approach that is bolder and more frank than his predecessor when it comes to addressing the system’s racial inequities. On Wednesday, he spent more than an hour participating in the training session just like the other school leaders, calling it “God’s work.”

“This is going to penetrate everything we do,” he said.

Wednesday’s session was lead by experts from the Perception Institute, a research and training organization, and Safe Places for the Advancement of Community and Equity (SPACEs), which provides leadership training. The pipe cleaners helped bring to life a metaphor about “bending” expectations for what educators might learn throughout the day. The one-on-one conversations were a way to “interrupt” stereotypical assumptions about other people by having sustained conversations with them, said trainer Dushaw Hockett.

“This isn’t some touchy-feely, get-to-know-you exercise,” he said.  

There is some evidence that, when done right, anti-bias trainings can work — and improve outcomes for students. But there is also research that shows it can often be ineffective.

Carranza said the city is committed to doing the work for the long-term, with the trainings designed to be ongoing and build on each other. He also said the department will keep an eye on measures such as student attendance and whether teachers report improvements in school climate to gauge whether it’s having an impact.

“This is going to be one of those cornerstone pieces in terms of, how are we going to continue to transform this immense system to really, truly serve all students?” he said. “This is going to be something that’s not going to fall off the radar. We’re going to keep pushing.”