Mixing arts and academics helps immigrant kids feel at home in Philly

Students in the HIAS Pa. Middle School Summer Education Program created musical instruments. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Students in the HIAS Pa. Middle School Summer Education Program created musical instruments. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

The kids crowded into a second-floor classroom at Gilbert Spruance School in Northeast Philadelphia came from every corner of the world: Uzbekistan. Syria. Mexico.

But they all wanted to hear Chester Rodriguez do something distinctly American. They wanted him to beat box.

“Chester! Chester,” they chanted.


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And for their enthusiasm, the 15-year-old born in the Dominican Republic rewarded them with about 45 seconds of rhythmic delight. The crowd went wild.

The casual joy of the moment captured precisely what makes the School District of Philadelphia’s Immigrant Children and Youth summer program so special. The four-week initiative — which exists somewhere between summer school and summer camp — gives recent immigrants and refugee children a chance to feel comfortable in school. It’s the kind of comfort that can be elusive for kids who’ve just arrived here, bombarded as they are with strange sights, sounds, and customs.

“The first week kids are kind of demure and well-behaved and by like the third week things are a little bit out of hand,” said Elizabeth Weinstein, a dance and movement instructor with the program.

Started three years ago, the Immigrant Children and Youth Summer Program is a joint effort of the district and HIAS Pennsylvania, a refugee resettlement agency. The district provides academics in the morning to the roughly 120 students. HIAS Pennsylvania sweeps in after lunch with art instruction. Children must be in middle school and in the country less than three years to be eligible for the program

Friday was the last day for this year’s iteration of the initiative, and it culminated with performances by the students. Some showed off art projects. Others sang songs.

Klevisa Bashalli, 11, performed a short story she wrote inspired a Rockwell-style painting of a boy and a girl. Her confident performance would have been remarkable for any kid her age, but it’s especially impressive given she immigrated from Albania in December.

“When I go in school I was so scared because it’s like I didn’t, I don’t know the language,” Bashalli said of her first days at Mayfair School in Northeast Philadelphia.

These days she’s feeling much more assured. She’s hoping to become a doctor someday — and perhaps, after that, a writer.

“I am good here,” she said. “And my friends, I feel welcome from them.”

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