School among Top Ten world’s finalists for community collaboration that benefits its Burmese student population
Communications, Perry Schools
William Henry Burkhart Elementary Schools is now considered one of the best schools in the world.
On Thursday, Global organization, T4 Education announced the Perry Township school is a top ten finalist for its World’s Best Schools prize in the category of Community Collaboration. The announcement at the Southside school touched off a huge celebration with a big banner held high to commemorate the honor.
T4 Education will announce the top three finalists in September with the winner announced in October.
If selected, Burkhart Elementary would receive $50,000.
As explained at the school assembly Thursday, T4 Education recognized the school for aiding Burmese refugees in fulfilling the American Dream. Local TV personality Rafael Sanchez served as emcee for several speakers, including former Burkhart student and IUPUI graduate Sun Par who has enhanced the definition of the American Dream: “A life of personal happiness and material comfort as traditionally sought by individuals in the U.S.”
Par simply stated, “Just being an American is already an honor. I never thought I’d be able to go to college. But I did. So that’s a dream.”
Par and her family are among refugees from Burma, a country in turmoil and one of the least developed countries in the world.
“My dad worked hard labor without getting paid. If you are from a lower-class family, you’re only option is to get married as young as 14, 13 years old. Getting an education is hard to get if you don’t have money in Burma. My parents did not want that for us. They wanted us to get an education,” said Par.
Par was only six or seven years old when her dad moved to Malaysia to make a better life for his family. He lived as a refugee in Malaysia, where he could work to save money to move his family to the U.S. Par, her mom and four siblings stayed in Burma.
“The journey to the US was challenging,” Par recalled. “He would bury his money in the ground, where no one could find it. It means a lot to me. When I think about me putting myself in their shoes, could I do this for my family?”
In 2007, Par’s father had saved enough money and the family eventually made it to Perry Township where Par’s aunt had a two-bedroom, one bathroom apartment ready for the family of seven.
“It was wonderful,” Par said “We didn’t have a bedroom in Burma. We would sleep in the living room with blankets piled. Having our own two beds and private bathroom felt very privileged.”
One month after moving to the U.S., 10-year-old Par was enrolled at Burkhart in the fourth grade. She spoke no English.
“It was very weird going to school,” said Par. “I don’t remember being in school in Burma. They’d have to test how much English we knew. So, I’d just do eeny, meeny, miny, moe. I did not know anything.”
Darlene Hardesty, now principal, was Par’s fifth-grade teacher.
Hardesty recalled, “Sun was very attentive in the classroom. She wanted to learn. She was a sponge.”
Par was among a wave of Burmese refugees who were welcomed in schools, but Hardesty also realized that ways needed to be developed to effectively teach those who were not fluent in English.
“Nonverbal communication was important. We started labeling things in our classrooms with English words, things that native English speakers don’t need, but children who are learning English certainly did,” recalled Hardesty.
The refugees also faced extreme poverty; basic physical needs weren’t being met.
Fast forward to 2023, Indianapolis has the highest Burmese population in the U.S., with more than 20,000 people. Burkhart Elementary partners with dozens of businesses, churches and organizations for services for kids. Additionally, Perry Township Schools has the state’s most robust English Learners programs among any school district.
T4 Education took note, resulting in the announcement and celebration Thursday honoring Burkhart Elementary for providing a quality education and for its partnerships throughout the community.
“The recognition is amazing and I’m honored and humbled that Burkhart was selected for this. But it’s not why we do the work. It’s about our kids reaching dreams, bringing scholarships to kids who want to pursue the American Dream,” said Hardesty.
Kids like Par. She made it through elementary school and went on to graduating from high school with academic honors. Par recently graduated from college with a degree in Elementary Education. As she studies for her licensing exams, she went back to where it all started, Henry Burkhart Elementary School, where she is a translator.
She wants to help other students achieve their version of the American Dream.