Music class helps Sacramento refugee students learn English

“Bass, bass, tone, tone, tone. Bass, bass, tone, tone, tone,” repeated music teacher Gayle Winney as the kids beat African djembe drums in unison.

“If you can say it, you can play it,” she encouraged.

All 32 students in the after-school music program at Howe Avenue Elementary School are recent immigrants, and 17 are refugees from nations that include Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and Sudan.

The Arden Arcade school has become a magnet for refugee families as nonprofits that sponsor their immigration to the United States have located them in apartments in surrounding neighborhoods. The school has 73 refugee students this year.

Winney started her Building Oral Language Through Music class two years ago as she observed that newcomers can participate in the music program right away though they struggle to speak English.

In one session last month, older students played together and performed solos while smiling and laughing as their younger counterparts in the next room beat drumsticks on drum pads under the instruction of music teacher Deborah Cardoza.

“Drums are something you see anywhere in the world and that people can relate to,” Cardoza said about the decision to use that instrument for the program. “Anyone can make a sound on a drum.”

The one-hour class uses music to help students build oral language skills and learn American cultural norms, like taking your hat off when you hear the national anthem, Winney said.

After the music lesson, half of the class joins a table headed by Dalya Abdullah. The bilingual instructor, an Iraqi refugee herself, works with the students who speak the least English. On Friday, they learned to pronounce words that start with the letter “H.”

Across the room, Winney read a book about music with the more advanced students.

“How many in a quartet,” Winney asked. Her students gave little response.

“How many in an octet?” Hands shot into the air.

The music program is just one of the ways Howe Avenue Elementary supports students who are new to the country. The school integrates specialized instruction for English learners into all of its lessons and dedicates a 30-minute session of concentrated teaching for English learners each day.

Two school psychologists are available to aid refugee students, who often come to the campus with the extra emotional baggage that comes from experiencing the trauma of war and leaving extended family and the life and culture they know behind.

Winney and Abdullah add to that support with Friday home visits to the families of students in the BOLT music class. On one such trip, the two women visited the family of kindergartner Asad Albayati in a nearby apartment. The aging beige complex is almost entirely inhabited by refugee families.

The eight families who share the stairwell with the Albayati family are from Iraq, Ukraine, U.S. and Afghanistan. The Albayati family was resettled here just over a year ago by the International Rescue Committee, which works in 40 countries and 25 U.S. cities to find new homes for refugees.

Hassanen Albayati was working as a guard for an American agency that aids refugees in Iraq when his life was threatened twice, he said. The couple kept their children locked inside their home.

“I was frustrated and depressed because all I wanted was a safe place for my family,” Albayati said.

Albayati now works part time as a baker and takes English classes. His wife, Evan Aljboory, volunteers at the preschool her younger son attends.

“We feel supported and like everyone cares about our kids,” Albayati said about Howe Avenue Elementary.

Albayati said he is impressed with the cafeteria staff, who highlight the meals on the menu that contain pork so Muslim families know when to pack lunches for their children. They also help Muslim children find other cafeteria options on days they don’t bring their food.

During the home visit, Albayati and Aljboory set hot steaming glasses of tea and plates piled with creme-filled sponge cakes in front of their guests in their sparsely decorated apartment. Sons Asad, 5, and Ibraheem, 4, watched shyly from the edge of a couch.

Earlier at school, Asad had excitedly told his classmates about the upcoming visit. “It’s an honor for the teacher to come to the house,” Winney said.

During the visit, Albayati said he was concerned that Asad wasn’t learning English quickly enough, saying he doesn’t try to speak it at home.

It’s normal for a student to speak his second language at school and return to his primary language at home, Winney reassured him. “We want him to keep his primary language.”

Despite his concerns, Albayati was exuberant in his gratitude to the Howe Avenue Elementary staff. He credited them with helping his son overcome fears stemming from his experiences in Iraq. Asad is social and making friends, he said.

Abdullah understands exactly what the Albayati family is going through. She and her family left Iraq in 2003 after her husband, a business owner, was threatened for working with an American organization that wanted to promote democracy.

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She said the family sought safety, a good education for their four children and religious freedom in the United States in 2010 after living in Egypt and Jordan. Now she wants to help families be successful in the Unites States.

“We want to build a bridge to go from this side to this side,” Abdullah said, stretching out her arms.

Diana Lambert: 916-321-1090, @dianalambert

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