Abby Hoover
Managing Editor

Kansas City Public School District (KCPS) is rethinking the methods they use to teach immigrants and refugee students. When the district returned to school this fall, English Language Learners (ELL) were welcomed to the new International Welcome Center (IWC) at 711 Woodland Ave. The center will also serve as a “one-stop shop” for resources, enrollment, translation and other services for their families.

“I’m so proud to be here today, finally, and proud to be part of the KCPS team, and really proud to be part of a city that’s doing the work to welcome refugee and immigrant communities,” said Allyson Hile, Director of Language Services and Cultural Equity for KCPS.

Hile started her career in 2000 as a paraprofessional at Northeast Middle School in a New Americans classroom. She found her passion and was an instructional coach before becoming director.

“It’s just really been the honor of my life to serve families from all over the world as they come here and start their American stories,” Hile said. “Today, with the opening of the International Welcome Center, we’re opening a new chapter in our ability to serve and welcome refugee and immigrant families here in Kansas City.”

Forty elementary students were greeted by an IWC staff that can translate for nine languages for the first day of classes on September 17.

“It’s an invitation, it’s a promise, and it is a 60,000 square foot welcome mat to refugee and immigrant families coming into our city and schools,” Hile said.

KCPS Superintendent Mark Bedell has wanted to expand the district’s specialized programs since he started at the district in 2014, bringing ideas from his previous district in Houston.

“Having this program now come to fruition is something that’s near and dear to my heart because we know that we are one of the school districts that have probably the largest ELL population in the state of Missouri,” Bedell said. “We know that as people go to resettle, the Northeast side of our town is the area where many of our families will relocate to, and what we wanted to do was try to concentrate all of our resources in one location.”

Bedell said IWC is a one-stop shop to make sure that all students, regardless of what neighborhood school they go to, have multilingual educators, support services, interpreters and resources in one building, rather than spread out across town. He hopes this is something he can look back on in 10 years and know the district got it right, and he couldn’t be more thrilled with the evolution of the program.

“I think it just means that we’re going to go leaps and bounds further than we already do,” said Manny Abarca, School Board member representing the Third Subdistrict. “We’re one of the largest districts that serve English Language Learners, not only in the city but in the region, and so it’s great to have this welcome center here, for not only what it can do for the students but for their families, too.”

The district will consolidate many of its support services to the building located in Northeast Kansas City’s Independence Plaza neighborhood, with one half used for offices and the other for classrooms.

“Obviously, because of who we are, where we’re from, all the different cultures that are here and lined up, I think it’s right that it’s here,” said Abarca, who represents the community on the board. “It’s a beautiful day to have this kind of groundbreaking, get them started.”

IWC has a counselor, bilingual social worker and a nurse on-site for students, as well as a community room and space for community partners like Jewish Vocational Services (JVS), the largest resettlement agency in the metro area.

JVS Executive Director Hilary Cohen Singer said her agency helps parents get involved in their students’ education, works with enrollment, students who are struggling in a new environment, and is partnering with the IWC to have their youth social work team on-site.

“We can be in really close coordination with all of the supports that are already in place here with teachers and administrators so we make sure that we catch those kids that are struggling before they have an opportunity to really fall behind,” Cohen Singer said. “We can provide a proactive intervention to help them get on the right path.

With four large classrooms, Rumpf said they plan to keep class sizes small. Once they have 15 students in each classroom, they’ll hire another teacher and open a fifth classroom.

“We’re expecting between 80 and 100 more between October and December,” Administrator Ryan Rumpf said. “We have about 420 [refugees] coming, so we’re guesstimating, knowing that there’s four or five children per family and maybe haf of those are elementary age. We don’t know until they get here.”

Right now the teachers are working with students to spell their names, count to 20, learn the sounds letters make, and meet other milestones they’ve mapped out to be able to place them. While some of the students have been to school before, many haven’t or have had interrupted access and will be placed by need rather than age.

English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) resource teachers Tammy Carter, Sadie Jackson and Sharon Hayes, both from Northeast Middle School, support teachers in their classrooms at neighborhood schools.

“It’s pretty important, but there’s a balance between just teaching them English and then teaching them curriculum,” Jackson said. “So, the teachers have to work together to find that balance.”

Each with decades of experience, the ESOL resource teachers know the younger the students are when they begin learning English, the less the gap is later on. If they begin in kindergarten or first grade, they’ll pick up the language easier because they’re not as self-conscious or shy around their peers. As the curriculum has evolved, it’s become more focused on keeping them in the classroom and not pulling them out.

“We used to do a pull-out service, now we’re doing a co-teaching model so they’re immersed in both learning English and learning the curriculum,” Jackson said. “That’s better for the student because even though they come into the country and they’re here for maybe six months, they still are required to take the state standardized test. Getting them immersed in the curriculum is so much better, that’s why we changed over to the co-teaching model.”

The interaction with native English speakers helps them learn quicker and bond with their class. For students of the IWC, they attend neighborhood schools for the other half of the school day.

“The Kansas City Public Schools has always been the first stop for most of the immigrants and refugees who come to the Kansas City area, and we have been best equipped to welcome the students into our school district and into this city,” said Patti Mansur, former KCPS school board chair.

“Having this large building with these kinds of programs here means we’re working to be a gathering place for some of the most diverse and interesting communities within our metro area and helping them become part of a vibrant Kansas City.”

Designed by architect Charles A. Smith, the school opened in 1921 as an elementary school and in 2013 reopened as Woodland Early Learning Community School, but also housed state offices so families could register for state assistance programs.

“As we were looking, we realized this is a great space and our families are right there, Samuel U. Rodgers is right here, Social Security Administration is right here, we’re right on a bus line, and it’s already a school,” Hile said. “It’s perfect.”

They started looking at the building in 2017 or 2018, and planned on getting the budget together. When COVID began to spread, it gave them more time to plan. They began work on restoring the building in January 2021.

“Whenever I started there weren’t ceiling tiles, there weren’t lights, there wasn’t anything,” Rumpf said. “They really worked this thing over and I’m hopeful there’s still a phase two coming… We love the space, the classroom sizes are massive, comparatively.”

He hopes they can find a community partner to come in and brighten up the beige walls and restore other parts of the building to become usable space.

Over the summer, he started a virtual fundraiser to purchase benches, decor and signs for the hallways. They set up a kids’ area in the IWC enrollment office to make the space more welcoming to students because it’ll most likely be one of the first places they encounter. There, families can make sure they have all their documents and vaccinations, and students can be assessed.

“Whenever they come, we can assess their English, we can assess how much math and literacy they have in their native language,” Rumpf said. “All of that helps inform us whether they qualify to come here or if they’ll be okay in their neighborhood school.”

Each of their teachers hold dual certification. Only having the students for two and a half hours per day, the teachers squeeze as much learning in as they can, whether they speak Swahili, Spanish, or anything else.

“We have two elementary ed, we have a math specialist, we have early childhood specialists, and all four of them have their ESL certificates,” Rumpf said. “Plus, they’re magic people, they’re the rockstars of this thing. They make things happen and they get the most out of the kids. It’s a challenge, but it’s the best job in the world.”

Engoma Fataki, a KCPS graduate, and his family came to Kansas City in 2014. When he arrived in Kansas City, he spoke little to no English. Now, he interprets and translates for the IWC.

“Each student is going to come to this district with a unique set of life experience,” Fataki said. “I was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and my parents left just after the civil war that happened there. And of course, I didn’t know that I spent the next 17 years of my childhood in a refugee camp, where there were few educational opportunities.”

With the support and understanding of his teachers, he finally began to connect with the material he was being taught in class. That was when he began to feel a sense of belonging.

“My story is an example of what can happen to students of all backgrounds and opportunities,” Fataki said. “The purpose of the Global Academy is to ensure the student is given opportunities – opportunities to learn without holding back or having to worry about saying what I need to say incorrectly and getting laughed at. Students who are English learners struggle with that regularly, especially younger students. That’s where the Global Academy comes in. They are here to get them ready so they can be successful in their classrooms.”

The district is paving the way for success for English Language Learners by conveniently consolidating resources and evolving its curriculum to create the International Welcome Center in Northeast Kansas City. More information is available at