Colorful flags hover over the stacked bookshelves in Glenridge Elementary School’s library. These various flags represent the home country of each international student who has attended and currently attends Glenridge. The row of flags continues to lengthen across the bookshelves each year as more international students come to Glenridge.
This year, 50 students qualified for English Language Learners (ELL) service at Glenridge.
Alejandra Bergstrom, ELL teacher at Glenridge, explained that “word of mouth” created an interconnected network of international families, particularly in China, sharing their memories of the Clayton community to their friends and family.
“The word is out there, especially in China, that this is a nice community and a great school,” Bergstrom said. “Basically, there is a network of Chinese families that communicate amongst themselves and know before coming to the U.S. where to live and where the good schools are. I believe Glenridge is the school they prefer, mainly because of the affordable housing around and also because of an established, supportive network of other Chinese families already attending our school.”
In addition to the network of international families, Glenridge principal Beth Scott described how many parents are visiting scholars — students or researchers — at local universities, including Washington University, St. Louis University (SLU), and University of Missouri, St. Louis (UMSL).
“All of our universities are accepting the same number of one year scholars or two year scholars, but the belief is that the influx of social media has found Glenridge as their niche spot,” Scott said. “So, on an application called WeChat in China, families are networking to say, ‘I’m coming to St. Louis, where should I land? Where should I send my children?’ And the scholar might come first but then get the visa for [their] family member to come next.”
In fact, Ying Yang, a parent of a student currently attending Glenridge, explained her story that temporarily brought her to Clayton from China as a visiting scholar.
”I came to St. Louis as a visiting scholar doing research at UMSL for the full year,” Yang said. “I heard of Glenridge from my friends who are visiting scholars too. I heard a lot of good things about Glenridge and there are many Chinese friends around which can give a lot of support for us two.”
Glenridge is an attractive school for many international families because of the teachers’ support and guidance in helping students succeed.
“Everybody loves Glenridge,” Scott said. “So, word on the street is ‘Mrs. Scott you’re so nice, and I hear that Glenridge would be the best place to be.’ I think that our teachers are so good at what they do, but the stress level of a Glenridge teacher might be a little different than at Meramec and Captain. I don’t have any teachers complaining about that, nor do I have families coming to me saying ‘what’s this.’”
However, although Glenridge provides supportive teachers, the transition can be challenging and emotional for many international students.
“The beginning is hard because most newcomers don’t know any English,” Bergstrom said. “They have to get used to a new school, a new culture, and understand the language. Most students come with one parent, so the other parent is back in China. That is a huge adjustment for the whole family. Children are usually very adaptable, so after a few weeks and some basic social English, they begin to make new friends and feel comfortable in their new setting.”
CHS senior Eunice Shin came to Glenridge from Seoul and had to transition to the new system as well.
I wasn’t the traditional immigrant — I had learned English simultaneously alongside with Korean, so the language barrier thankfully wasn’t my biggest obstacle. However, I was coming from a completely different culture — I had attended an international school in Seoul — and I was definitely nervous on my first day at Glenridge. I just remember a blur of faces, Mr. Hasler’s classroom, and was shocked at what school lunches looked like here. And I do remember that everyone was really friendly and it wasn’t too rough of a transition to make friends.
— Eunice Shin
Because of the welcoming atmosphere at Glenridge, ELL teacher at Wydown Middle School, Nancy Gamble, described how international students encourage other students to learn about different cultures and create new friendships.
“I believe having international students in our classrooms drives learning,” Gamble said. “Here’s an example of what I mean — when you have the opportunity to meet someone from another country, at first it might feel awkward or uncomfortable because of differences in language or culture. But when you persist and get to know that person, communication gradually becomes easier and you begin to ask questions to learn from and understand each other. These relationships are rich learning opportunities.”
Not only do international students drive learning in the classrooms, but they also bring new perspectives and cultural diversity.
“International students bring to our community multilingualism, different perspectives and ways of thinking, excellent academic skills, cultural diversity, a way for English speaking students to learn how to communicate with students who speak other languages,” Gamble said. “If students in Clayton are to grow in cultural competence so they can navigate in an increasingly multicultural college campuses and workplaces, having international students in their classrooms helps them learn how to study, communicate, work and develop positive relationships with people from all over the world.”
The influx of international students, however, has increased the typical class size.
“In Clayton, they ask that we maintain our ideal number of 20 students per class, that can be 18 [children per class in] kindergarten and 1st grade, but 20 [children per class in] second grade through 5th grade, so that’s in board policy,” Scott said. “Yet we push beyond there. [A] grade level last year went to 25 per class. We didn’t have the facility designed to move them into a 4th section mid year, and you hate to do that as a principal for a school. I’ve never had to, I’m not saying I wouldn’t, but you typically would make that move as a new year started.”
As a result in the increase of class size, interns have been employed to offer support.
“We started adding some intern support in the building … In fact, this year at curriculum night, [we] tried to increase communication about introducing [the interns], having them be a member of the conversation, so parents also got to know their faces and understood that they are really viable members of our staff and help large class sizes break into smaller numbers,” Scott said. “So, the way teachers in the elementary school now teach, a lot of it is workshop model. A teacher might start at the beginning of a class period with some general whole group instruction. And then based on data, break students into smaller independent work groups and go into these differentiated groups, throughout the whole math hour and throughout most of all of literacy. So, that also personalizes educational experiences for children and also reaches a level of independence for kids in their own learning.”
In addition to the help from teachers and interns, Clayton Connect — created by Shin and fellow CHS senior Chenny Lee — is a volunteer program designed to help new international students with homework at Glenridge.
“Clayton Connect stemmed from my own experience as an immigrant elementary student — my mother wasn’t able to help me with my schoolwork, and although my father was, he was and still is in Korea due to his job,” Shin said. “And as the eldest, I had to help my siblings as well, and initially, it was just difficult for me academically to adjust to the new setting. Thinking back on my own experiences, I set the program up with help from friends and family — Chenny as my co-president — in order to perhaps minimize kids who go through what I felt when I was in their shoes.”
With the support from teachers and Clayton Connect, international families are continuously welcomed into Glenridge community.
“We get friendship and comfort and at the same time, it is also a kind of separation from full cultural experience in America,” Ying said. “If we have more chances to interact with American family and friends, it will benefit kids for sure.”
Indeed, Kristin Redington, President of the Board of Education (BOE), gladly welcomes international families with her yearly international coffees. Redington described how she enjoys hosting the coffees and creating a sense of belonging for these new families in the Clayton community.
“I think it’s very brave, because you know what you know, and you don’t know what it’s like to be in another country,” Redington said. “They’re entrusting their children, their dreams, with us, in our schools, and at Glenridge and Wydown, and CHS. I’m honored that they choose to come here. I feel like I’m giving something back when I can host them in my home and make them feel welcome. It gives them a familiar face when they’re over at the school, a sense of belonging.”