New lives and brighter futures for migrant children in western Kansas

More than 100 years ago, Dodge City was built by brave men and women who were determined to forge a new life for themselves in America’s wild west. So this town of 30,000 on the south-central Kansas planes seems a fitting place to find modern-day adventurers in search of a better life.

Refugees from countries as diverse as Haiti, Sudan, Thailand and Nicaragua, have migrated to Dodge City to work and give their families a fresh start.

While they have high hopes of building a better future for their children, these new arrivals face challenges as they assimilate to their new home.

For example, migrant students entering the Dodge City Public Schools must learn English, navigate the school culture and master course content, shares Greta Clark, English language agent for the Dodge City public schools. It’s a lot. So one of the ways the district is investing in new students’ success is by championing an innovative after-school program called Exploration in Transition Opportunities (EXITO).

EXITO is a 21st Century Learning Center (21st CCLC), focused on providing quality, STEM-focused afterschool programming for at-risk students. This and the other 57 21st CCLC grant programs in Kansas receive ongoing support from the Kansas Enrichment Network at the University of Kansas’s Center for Public Partnerships and Research.

“We like to brag on the EXITO program because of what it is doing for the community,” says Kristina Mason, KEN research project coordinator. “The EXITO program is meeting a very unique need in their community. They are providing an amazing support for the families and really making a difference for so many kids as they are transitioning.”

After the last bell has rung for the day in the Dodge City public schools, more than 100 middle school and high school students head to on-site EXITO classrooms, where they work with district educators on academic skills, language skills and enrichment activities. While EXITO is open to all students, its focus is on helping migrant students gather the knowledge and experiences they need to do well in school and become college and career ready.

“This after-school program is a benefit for newcomer students because the extra time in the program gives them opportunity to have community, become acquainted with community resources, and helps them with their academic work,” shares Clark, EXITO program director.

“This is a huge situation for them, because oftentimes they may have had gaps in their education in their country of origin,” she explains. “Some may not have had any formal schooling at all. If you have not been in school much, course content in itself is a challenge, not to mention language barriers.” Clark says there are about 30 different languages or dialects spoken in Dodge City.

During EXITO, students dig into STEM exploration, doing projects like building robots they control with iPads. They learn about career paths in their community and take field trips to college campuses, meeting with admissions professionals.

Since launching in 2016, EXITO has seen some exciting results. Clark shares a story of one EXITO teacher who was concerned that 18 of the 25 students at her EXITO site were failing a class. So she established the EXITO Student of the Week competition, where students could win a Godfather’s Pizza if they were earning a C or better in all their classes. Within two weeks, 18 of her students had qualified for the award.

“The function of the EXITO program is based on the outstanding work of the program teachers, staff and volunteers,” says Dr. Robert Vinton, director of the migrant department for USD 443.

“The staff and instructors have big hearts,” echoes Clark. “They believe in the potential of these students. The students are so overwhelmed with the struggle of just surviving, they may not know their own potential. The teachers have the insight to see beyond what is on the surface and help the students expand themselves. Without the teachers understanding the potential that is there, it can go untapped.”

Clark credits the support they receive from KEN with helping the EXCITO team tackle challenges and take advantage of opportunities to benefit their students. By hosting conferences, conducting site visits and creating community sharing spaces, KEN allows this and other 21st CCLCs across the state to connect, share experiences and exchange resources.

“The EXITO program gives you a feeling of promise for the future,” Mason says. “These kids are getting a need met and they, in turn, will go on to make a difference.”

Thanks to Micki Chestnut for this glimpse of CPPR’s reach within Kansas.

This post was originally published on the CPPR blog. If you’d like to learn more about our work at the University of Kansas Center for Public Partnerships and Research, visit our website or follow us on Twitter.

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