INDIANAPOLIS — A Perry Township school is a top three finalist for a global award for its efforts embracing a growing population of Burmese students.
William Henry Burkhart Elementary is one of three finalists and could win $50,000 in the T4 World's Best School Prize for Community Collaboration 2023, the school district announced.
Nearly 30,000 Burmese refugees live in Indianapolis, according to the Burmese American Community Institute. Most of these families are building their new lives in Perry Township on the south side.
Burkhart Elementary Principal Darlene Hardesty said teachers and administrators have spent about two decades building relationship with churches and community organizations to provide food, clothing and whatever else these families need to adapt to life in Indiana.
"(These are) students who have come from war torn areas, lived in refugee camps and made their way to settle here in Indianapolis," Hardesty told WRTV. "We have worked hard to understand how best to support these students academically, but then also looking at the world outside of school."
The district says about 23% of Perry Township students are Burmese — including nearly half of the almost 500 who attend Burkhart. About 160 students at Burkhart are learning to speak English.
Many refugee families arrive in Indiana with little more than their luggage. Early on, Hardesty said, teachers were seeing Burmese students show up at school without winter coats or decent shoes.
"When we first started seeing refugees arrive to our schools, we really worked hard to pool our own resources as educators: Do we have extra coats at home? Do we have shoes that will fit the children?" Hardesty said.
"As more and more refugees came and settled in the area, we really had to reach outside of our own walls and look to our community partners for some support. Lots of the area churches have been very supportive."
Burkhart has built partnerships with church and community groups to ensure their Burmese students have the things they need to be successful in class and at home, Hardesty said.
Winners will be announced within the next couple of months.
"if we do win the World's Best School prize, we plan to use the $50,000 to establish a scholarship... to help support students who are pursuing their dream, and really focusing on students who have had to overcome a hardship such as our Burmese students," Hardesty said.
Burkhart students and staff will celebrate being named a finalist during an in-school assembly on Tuesday afternoon.
On Thursday evening, the school is hosting a community celebration with bounce houses, food and games, Hardesty said.
Contact WRTV reporter Vic Ryckaert at email@example.com or on Twitter: @vicryc.