When 19-year old Si Wah has no homework during his lunchtime study hall at the Seattle World School, he goes to the library to get the Karen (Kah-ren)/ English dictionary so he can learn a few new words.
Si Wah, newly arrived from Myanmar, has been well educated but now must acquire a new language. He makes a point of learning as many relevant words as he can in his daily short half-hour of study time.
He most likely arrived with the help of the International Rescue Committee, which would have helped his family obtain visas to leave Myanmar to come here. Just now his English is too limited for him to give information about the journey his family made and the reasons for leaving their country.
The library for the Seattle World School students includes dictionaries in 40 languages, with just about everything from Albanian and Amharic to Urdu and Wolof — the latter commonly used in Senegal. Accumulated over the 30 years that this has been a Seattle public school, these books have served hundreds of students since the school was founded to serve refugees from Southeast Asia in 1980.
Dona Drabo, 14, who arrived here in 2011 from Senegal, comes to get the Wolof dictionary when he needs a translation. At first, it was easier for him to communicate in French since no one at the school spoke Wolof, but now he’s very comfortable speaking English.
“I love this school!” he proclaimed cheerfully. “I love this school because I am so comfortable with the other students. We all speak different languages, but we are all the same.”
“This resource is so valuable for students and families,” said librarian Laurie Amster-Burton. “We have books in several languages that offer English on one page and a world language on the opposite page. Students’ faces light up when they find a book, whether it’s a dictionary or a storybook, in their home language. This helps them to learn English.”
Every year, the language pie chart for the school changes. This year, it reveals that roughly half the students are from Asia, including Myanmar, Cambodia, China, Vietnam, Korea and Japan.
Roughly a quarter of the students are from Spanish-speaking countries in the Americas, and one-quarter are from Africa (both east and west), though few are from the north or the south.
In addition, students from a number of other countries — such as the Philippines, Indonesia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Romania and Brazil — attend.
A few years back, the pie chart showed almost 40 percent of the students were Somali, but that number has dropped to 11 percent as fewer immigrant and refugee families can afford to live in the Seattle area. More and more are settling farther south, in Tukwila and Auburn.
All World School classes are in English, so dictionaries that help students determine exact meanings of words are put to good use. This is one of only about 10 schools nationwide that provides secondary-school students with an immersion program. Without instructional assistants available in classrooms for every language, students need the help of the dictionaries to help them navigate their way through a confusing and literacy-challenged time.
Previously, the school was known as the Secondary Bilingual Orientation Center (SBOC). It currently shares the former Meany Middle School building on Capitol Hill with NOVA, an alternative high school.
Students at the World School have the option of remaining four years to work towards a high school diploma, or they can transition to their neighborhood secondary schools when they have shown adequate proficiency in core subjects.
To learn more, go to www.seattleschools.org/schools/secboc.To volunteer as a tutor or as a classroom helper, e-mail the volunteer coordinator at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
DIANE STEEN is a volunteer at the Seattle World School (formerly the Secondary Bilingual Orientation Center). To comment on this column, write to