MOSCOW – Parents from Saudi Arabia or Myanmar are often perplexed by the cute cutouts of ghosts and witches adorning the walls in their first graders’ classrooms this month, or the overweight bearded man riding a red sleigh in December.
It’s Maarn Crepeau’s job at West Park Elementary to help international families navigate the norms of American culture and language. West Park is one of four elementary schools in the Moscow School District – but it’s different from the others.
A seasoned ESL instructional assistant, Crepeau is part family advocate, counselor, food inspector, mentor and warmhearted grandmother. She prepares classroom teachers for students who may avoid certain card games because of Haram, things that are forbidden by Islamic law; or the food preferences in some cultures to avoid gelatin, an ingredient of Candy Corn.
“I do feel very drawn to helping students and I love kids this age. This is my happy place,” she said.
West Park Elementary is unique for several reasons: the small school of 158 sits just about on the University of Idaho campus and boasts a diverse population of international K-2 students, whose families are either connected to the university or refugees. The district has one certified ESL teacher and two part-time instructors.
“We have a family that just left Afghanistan and the children were very traumatized. They had been in Pakistan as refugees from the Taliban and moved here. It’s very difficult. I was showing them around the school … and the mom and dad just started crying. This little girl is .001% of Afghani girls who get to go to school,” Crepeau said.
New language, new school, new culture – that’s a lot to handle at such a young age. Anxiety and nervousness are expected. On the first day of school, one little girl vomited three times, Crepeau recalled.
The U of I connection stems from the professors, graduate students and undergraduate students who send their children to West Park. In a single year, they have children speaking languages from 18 different nations, from Vietnam, Mongolia and Iran, to Nigeria, India and Jordan.
“We have to think past our assumptions,” said principal Brian Smith.
They aren’t familiar with the etiquette of a school concert, class picture day or the purpose of parent-teacher conferences — not to mention American holidays and celebrations. Beyond those, social skills are necessary to navigate making new friends and playing at recess, and the best way to address adults.
“So my job is to make sure these kids feel comfortable. And once they feel like they’re in a safe space, that’s when the learning starts,” Crepeau said.
On average there are 25 ESL students in the school; Crepeau works with about 10 of those attending an American school for the first time. She pulls those students out of their classrooms for socialization and language development.
On Tuesday, Crepeau and her Chinese and Libyan students learned about the weather and sang songs about the days of the week. But the school’s outreach goes beyond the campus.
“It’s a priority to have the parents as partners,” said superintendent Shawn Tiegs. “There are barriers for parents too.”
Crepeau and the district created an outreach program called ESL parents group, a relaxed event for mothers to drink tea together, learn about community resources, develop a network and share their concerns: Does their child have someone to play with? What foods are the school serving? Do they know enough English to survive in the classroom?
“I’m excited that moms have a voice,” Crepeau said.
Tiegs added, “The value on public education is very clear here.”
The idea behind mothers’ tea is to help families adjust. They provide information about adult ESL classes; how to find after-school activities for their children to attend; how to obtain a library card; where to find donated food or clothing; school leaders and counselors.
“It has to be this group effort, including the factor of having the moms and the dads involved, which is important,” Smith said.
Crepeau started her ESL career more than 20 years ago in Idaho Falls as an ESL teaching assistant. She started with Moscow in 2018. She can dabble in several languages, like Arabic and German, and is fluent in Spanish.
With exposure to so many disparate languages, which ones would Crepeau want to master and speak fluently?
“All of them,” she said proudly.