First Chaldean/Assyrian Charter School in the U.S. Promotes Language and History
By: Weam Namou/Arab America Ambassador Blogger
Mesopotamia, the Cradle of Civilization, is where we find the origins of agriculture, written languages, cities, schools, and libraries. Ancient Mesopotamians helped shape life as we know it today. Their lifestyle was destroyed by wars that continue to cause damage in modern day history; particularly, affecting its descendants of Chaldeans, Assyrians, and Syriacs whose population continues to decline worldwide.
In an effort to preserve this civilization’s languages and rich history through education, Nathan Kalasho, along with his father Asaad, his mother Neran, sister Nadine, and brother Dylan, all co-founded KEYS Grace Academy in Madison Heights, Michigan. Opened in 2015, it is the first and only Chaldean/Assyrian centered charter school in the United States.
Photo: Nathan Kalasho
Most of the students are of Middle Eastern backgrounds, with 14 different countries of origin and more than 20 communities across Macomb, Oakland, and Wayne counties. The school provides free busing and food to all children as well as legal aid and a medical clinic inside the building for parents.
Jonah Lane-Moore, a 5th-grade teacher, says that he loves working at the school because it’s a great and positive community to work in. For him, one of the most fun parts of the job is making a good first impression on a student who may be in a classroom for the very first time, or maybe even him being the student’s first non-Arab or Chaldean teacher.
“I try to dispel the stereotype that they might have had come here,” he said. “I always worry about what they see on the Internet and misrepresentations of America. I just want to make sure they have a good first impression of America in general and of how school here can be a fun and safe place.”
One fifteen-year old student, named Steven, definitely recognizes the difference in the school systems. “I went to school in Iraq, but I didn’t like it at all,” said Steven. “Everyone was fighting and was scared to stay. That’s why we came here. School is different here. There, you fear the teachers and principal. Here, you love them.”
Melanie Weathers of Jokers4Fun started providing the school with party foods and activities since their grand opening. “The school is pretty diverse and I like that a lot,” said Weathers. “And when I talk to the kids, they tell me how their teachers are really awesome. It’s not often that kids like their teachers so much.” She also enjoys seeing the school’s outside garden.
“Each year I come back, this garden grows more and more,” she said.
Dylan Kalasho, the school’s project developer, said that the garden stemmed around the school motto.
“We’re a school for all,” he said. “This garden is a mirror to that. The students plant the garden and harvest approximately three tons of crops which they then distribute to the neighborhood.”
There’s even a recommendation sheet on their Facebook page where people can mark what they want. The crops include peppers, zucchini, broccoli, carrots, squash, onions, beets, and even watermelon – to name a few. Different grades plant different crops, depending on the care that crop requires.
There’s also a greenhouse, which is mostly tended by the 8th grade “Garden Buddy” program which is similar to the “Reading Buddy” program. “The garden is therapeutic and it teaches the students how to care for things and be responsible,” said Dylan. “When someone has detention, I’ll tell them to come and help me in the garden, knowing this is like a therapy garden.”
Another highlight of the school is the library, where every item has a rich story and students are free from the watchful eyes of a librarian. Dylan, who built and designed the library, created an outgoing and trendy atmosphere so that children would feel comfortable and want to hang out there for hours. He values the details of every item that’s hung on its walls or which sits on the shelves. “It sparks the students’ brain to ask questions,” he said. This, in turn, allows them the opportunity to share what they’re looking at – whether it’s the statue of Caesar, the pottery on the wall that’s been there since 1930, or the school desk from 1934.
The school has a healthy food program and it’s a green school. A lot of art pieces are made of recycled material. The drinking fountains provide filtered water so children can refill their personal water bottles. The garden is made of recycled material. For instance, book shelves from the kindergarten room were used to grow eggplants and cucumbers.
While the children learn English, the school’s curriculum includes a mandatory teaching of Sureth (Syriac) as well as the second language of Spanish. “We are weighing the demand for Arabic as well,” said Nathan Kalasho. “Many parents would like us to offer it as an option.”
The mission of the school is to prepare 21st-century students to think and succeed in a diverse, technological and ever-changing world through a partnership with homes, school. and community.
KEYS Grace Academy started with 250 students but that number doubled within a year. Today their Kindergarten-5th-grade elementary program is held at the main Academy campus, their 6th-8th-grade middle school program is held at a site just a mile east. For the 2018-2019 school year, they are planning for high schoolers to be in a separate school building in Madison Heights.