By Sherri Coner
Being named to the Top 10 shortlist for The Five World’s Best School Prizes for Community Collaboration has William Henry Burkhart Elementary School’s faculty, students and families proudly celebrating.
Founded last year by T4 Education along with Accenture, American Express, Yayasan Hasanah and the Lemann Foundation, the organization provides winning schools with $50,000 each.
Stories of why William Henry Burkhart Elementary School is in the spotlight are best explained by those directly involved, such as a refugee from Myanmar named Sun Par.
As a 9-year-old, Sun Par, now 25, arrived in America.
Like all the other refugees, she and her family had no English language skills and brought nothing more to America than one change of clothing.
When Sun Par was gently ushered into a colorful fourth-grade classroom at William Henry Burkhart Elementary School, American children smiled and welcomed her.
In her home country, children complete only the equivalent of first grade in American schools.
“It was hard to go to school,” Sun Par said. “It was a privilege.”
Around 2005, only a few Myanmar refugees arrived in the Indianapolis area and enrolled their little ones at the school, said William Henry Burkhart Elementary School Principal, Darlene Hardesty, who was teaching fifth grade at the time.
As Hardesty and other faculty began to identify the enormous needs of the families, they got busy meeting those needs, Hardesty said.
To be prepared for an influx of refugees, Hardesty attended professional training to learn more about how she and other educators could support language and academic needs.
Around the same time, Burkhart partnered with the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching (NIET) together, to develop instructional support for teachers. One of those very successful efforts is a co-teaching model which provides a “translator” teacher for classroom lessons.
Knowing that refugee families had no clothing appropriate for Hoosier winters, teachers brought in coats, gloves, snow boots and other winter attire outgrown by their own families.
“Then we expanded to churches and fundraisers,” Hardesty said.
Refugees also had no access to transportation or money for food.
Efforts by the school faculty “moved beyond the walls of our school,” Hardesty said.
As the community rallied, volunteers made trips to area food pantries to help feed refugees. Kitchen items were donated, along with beds and pillows, and everything else required to make their journey more comfortable. Winter clothing for adults was also donated.
In the midst of a world she was initially overwhelmed by, the shy little girl, Sun Par, blossomed anyway.
She graduated from high school with honors, then earned an education degree at IUPUI.
While Sun Par works toward gaining a teacher’s license, she is employed as a tutor and translator at William Henry Burkhart Elementary School, where her own journey began.
“I enjoy (it) a lot,” she said.
Hardesty spoke of the day she walked past a classroom and witnessed a heart-moving moment.
“Sun was leading first-grade English Language learners,” Hardesty said. “The children were breaking down the words, just like Sun had learned to do. And I just had to get a picture of that. We are very proud of Sun.”
In the last 10 years, the community has welcomed a 160% increase in the number of English Learner students to Burkhart. No matter what challenges have come their way, the dedicated faculty at Burkhart continues to be recognized for excellence in education.
Enriching stories of an entire school working to clothe, feed and educate children … and of course, the amazing accomplishments of Sun Par … perfectly explain why T4 recognized William Henry Burkhart Elementary School.
“It is all about the passion for what we do,” Hardesty said of Burkhart educators. “We are helping the American dream happen for these children and their parents.”