They come from Thailand, Sudan, Mexico, China and Bhutan — these workers, mothers, fathers and tiny preschoolers assembling paper pumpkins in a classroom.
They're wives practicing English by writing love letters to their husbands. They are immigrants brushing up on their English to land a job or pass the U.S. citizenship test.
They are the Omaha migrants, refugees and English learners who come to the Yates Community Center every day.
The Omaha Public Schools-run center, located at 32nd and Davenport Streets at the old Yates Elementary School, provides English, sewing and computer classes and preschool programs to Omaha's growing immigrant and refugee community.
Neighborhood activists in the Gifford Park area are pushing for the return of a neighborhood elementary school, a role that Yates used to fill before it closed in 1999.
But neighbors say it's not an either-or proposition. They want a new school, but they want the community center to continue thriving, too.
“Our vision is big,” said Susan Mayberger, OPS's coordinator of ESL, migrant and refugee education, who is the building administrator for the Yates center. “We want to have a neighborhood school that also provides community programming, this level of specialized early childhood education.”
Yates served 675 adults last year and dozens of preschoolers who attend one of four separate pre-K classes for Native American, migrant, special education and low-income kids. The programs are largely grant-funded and frequently involve collaboration with other local nonprofit groups, such as Lutheran Family Services.
“We're just trying to support these families at every level,” said Veronica Hill, the ESL/migrant teacher trainer at Yates. “We translate fliers for parent-teacher conferences, help them get social services like food stamps.”
On the second level of Yates, adults are grouped into classes depending on their English proficiency. In one classroom, students practiced pronouncing words like “avocado” and “ground beef,” preparation for grocery shopping. In Hussein Mohamed's class, adults practiced their writing.
“They see English as very important as far as looking for jobs is concerned,” he said. “Some come here two, three times a week; some come every day. They're trying their best, and they're improving.”
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