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When students returned to classes this year in Kansas City Public Schools, they were welcomed back by teachers and staff with hellos, hugs, and excitement. At one location it was more than just hello. Students heard “Welcome! Bienvenidos! Jambo! Karibu! Bienvenue!” and more. KCPS opened its brand new International Welcome Center at Woodland Early Learning Center to support families who have recently immigrated to the United States and settled in Kansas City. “There is just so much learning that can happen now that we have this space. I’m so excited for these kiddos,” said Allyson Hile, Director of Language Services and Cultural Equity for KCPS.

The Welcome Center opened just in time for Welcoming Week, a week from September 10 - 19 dedicated to celebrating and highlighting the contributions immigrants bring to our community. It's appropriate timing, as immigrants and refugees are the largest growing population in Kansas City. Hile’s team supports more than 4,000 students across the district who qualify as English Language Learners (ELLs) - the largest in the state. The journey to find a permanent Welcome Center home was several years in the making. “We noticed about 6 or 7 years ago, there was a huge influx of refugees,” she explained. We noticed these families needed really significant services, and of course among those were educational services.” As more immigrants and refugees arrived, the Department of Language Services and Cultural Equity brought on more ELL teachers, a social worker, and additional staff to provide wraparound services for families. The problem was there was no central location.

“The goal was to find a place in the community where our families live and are being settled,” said Hile. “Where they can come to us for all of these supports, and so could our partners.”

KCPS tried a few spots, including Manual Career and Technical Center, and Northeast Middle School, but transportation was a challenge for families getting to Manual Tech, and Hile said they realized they would quickly outgrow the space at Northeast. The perfect spot turned out to be the second floor at Woodland Early Learning Center. “This floor previously housed some State offices,” explained Hile. “The State eventually moved out but these offices and larger rooms were still here. We realized this was perfect. We’re right by where our families live. We’re by the Social Security office. We’re right by Samuel U. Rodgers Health Center where they receive care.”

The Welcome Center opened to students September 7. Not only can they do all their enrollment there, but their families can join them. There are translation and interpretation support, social workers on site, and connections to community partners such as Jewish Vocational Service and Della Lamb.

There’s also the Global Academy, where the students spend half their day. The Global Academy was previously scattered across Gladstone, Whittier, and Garfield Elementary Schools. Now, all the students from those schools come to the Woodland location where they spend half the day learning, and the other half in their home school where they have recess and lunch with their English-speaking peers. The Welcoming Center is planning for 60 students in the morning sessions and another 60 in the afternoon sessions.  “They’re currently working on what it’s like to be in school with COVID. How to keep their masks on, social distancing,” said Hile.  “They’re also doing nature scavenger hunts outside and other great lessons. These kids are doing things they couldn’t do in our other space.”

It’s also helpful for the staff, who don’t have to run around from school to school. Consolidating resources means KCPS can be more efficient and impactful.

As more students come through, Hile is optimistic about their future. Even with the challenges the students have already faced in life, they are bringing their assets and experiences to Kansas City Public Schools, and eventually the Greater KC workforce. “We have so many students who graduate and they are multilingual. Not just bilingual, but multilingual. They come to us already with so many assets that often American communities and schools don’t always recognize, but they graduate and they are hustlers and ready to go into the workforce being multilingual.”

The official ribbon cutting to celebrate the opening of the International Welcoming Center is Friday, September 17, 12 p.m. to 2 p.m. at Woodland Early Learning Center, 711 Woodland. To attend the open house, please register here. To learn more about the International Welcome Center and how you can support it, contact Allyson Hile at ahile@kcpublicschools.org.

Teachers welcome students to the Welcome Center
Educators welcome students to the International Welcome Center.
Students enter the Welcome Center
Students arrive at the International Welcome Center at Woodland Early Learning Center
Students at the Welcome Center engage with instructors.