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Bringing bilingual learning into low-income neighborhoods

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In second grade, Mariama Shaheed had a very special teacher that saw something in her.

“I was not very good at school, but she always treated me well and encouraged me,” she said. “That left an impression on me.” 

Shaheed took that positive experience with her throughout her school-age years, and when she got to Butler University her decision to work in education was solidified.

“I was sitting in this hot classroom with no air conditioner as a student teacher and it just hit me,” she recalled. “I just knew teaching was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.”

After graduating from Butler in 1998, Shaheed took a teaching position in Pike Township, which is where she student taught throughout college. She spent 17 years in the school district and during her tenure there she served as a teacher, assistant principal and principal. She said it wasn’t easy at first.

“I left the classroom kicking and screaming,” Shaheed said. “My first couple years as an assistant principal, I cried because I missed the kids so much.” 

Then, in 2002, a Spanish-speaking student enrolled at Snacks Crossing Elementary, where she was the principal at the time.

“I took Spanish in high school and college, but here I was not even able to string together a sentence in the language.”

So, she went to Mexico for six weeks for a truly immersive experience. She stayed with a Spanish-speaking family and during her time there only communicated in Spanish, no matter how much she butchered the language. She came back to the states being able to speak it and has only gotten better since.

“My Latino families were like ‘finally, someone understands,’ and my Black families saw that a bilingual curriculum was something that was possible for their children,” she said.

From there, she spent two years in a fellowship with The Mind Trust. During this time, she was able to put together what a bilingual curriculum would look like and the resources it would take.  

On Aug. 1, 2016 Global Prep Academy opened its doors within IPS Riverside 44 School. Global Prep Academy is a Charter Innovation School, which means 80 percent of students within the building also live within the school’s zip code. The remaining 20 percent come from all over the state through a lottery program. 

The school’s bilingual curriculum serves students in grades Pre-K through eighth grade. Students are taught the typical subjects (math, language arts, history, etc.) in both English and Spanish equally. So, 50 percent of the day they learn in English and 50 percent of the day they learn in Spanish. Although there are other schools around the city that teach bilingual curriculum, Global Prep offers this curriculum to students free of charge. Which was really important to Shaheed.

“I always feel so prideful when I see little Black kids that look like me speaking a different language,” she said, beaming with pride. 

The school has been open for three years now. Shaheed credits teachers, administrators and parents for the school’s success so far. Bonnie Kulenkamp, director of Exceptional Learners at Global Prep, has been working alongside Shaheed since her days at Snacks Crossing and always knew she’d do something remarkable within education.

“I thought that she was impressive in the way she spoke about her vision and how much she cared for the school,” Kulenkamp recalled of their time in Pike Township together. “[Global prep] is really teacher driven. Mariama is not afraid to roll up her sleeves and do the hard work, she’s passionate about staying in the classroom. Usually, you see principals staying in their office and only coming around when the superintendent is around, but she’s always in the classroom she knows our student’s families and is always looking to improve students and her teachers.”

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