For some, a Thanksgiving first at the Rochester International Academy



December 21, 2013

For the past three years, the Rochester International Academy has celebrated Thanksgiving in fine fashion.

At the school on the old Jefferson campus, students, faculty, staff, parents and other members of the closely knit RIA community gather together for bountiful servings of homemade turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, cranberries and pumpkin pie and a few other “American” foods.

For some RIA students and parents, like the original Pilgrims in 1621, this is their first Thanksgiving. If collective ebullience is any indication, this most American of traditions—and its feast—lived up to its billing.

As stated by Principal Mary Andrecolich-Montesano – “we planned for 400 and we had more than that. It warms my heart to share our ‘American Tradition – Thanksgiving’ with my students, their families and my staff. There was 100% staff attendance.” In preparation for the event, teachers explicitly taught the students what Thanksgiving was and what it meant to be grateful and thankful.

During the event, students delivered messages on gratefulness. One student said, “I am so grateful to be at RIA, it is my family.” Another student said, “I am grateful to be in America and I don’t have to sleep outside.” A parent said, “I am happy to learn about Thanksgiving. The food is different but very good, very American. I am happy that my children are learning English at RIA and that they have a big dinner for the refugee people and tell us what is going on in school in my language.”

Prior to the dinner, parents/guardians met with teachers along with interpreters—it is extremely important that the families hear school information in their native language—to discuss report cards, review the school calendar, discuss other school related parent/guardian concerns and cold weather. (Many of the families have not experienced a Rochester winter.) Parents/guardians were also invited to visit RIA’s clothing closet to receive free warm clothing – and they did.

For those unfamiliar, RIA’s mission is to help newly arrived English Language Learners acclimate to their new cultural and academic surroundings. RIA provides rigorous language instruction and interdisciplinary learning, in collaboration with families and the community.

Over the years, students at RIA have come from Nepal, Burma, Somalia, Bhutan, Thailand, Burundi, Tanzania, Vietnam, Iran, Rwanda, Ethiopia and Yemen. Over 90% of the students at RIA are refugees and have been resettled in Rochester through the Catholic Family Center.

Of all the schools I visit, RIA is unquestionably one of my favorites. At RIA—unlike other schools where the pose of blasé indifference too often prevails—students rarely have to be cajoled or hectored when it comes to their studies. You could say they are as hungry for education as for turkey and stuffing.

Unfortunately, every year RIA faces budget cuts and the possibility that the student body will be dispersed throughout the District. As someone who has seen the passion of its students and teachers—and how well the RIA model of assimilation works—this would be a loss indeed.


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