By Tony Gonzalez|
SMYRNA — In the refugee camps where she grew up in Thailand, Shee Ku walked through the jungle to sit in dirt-floor classrooms where teachers punished mistakes with physical force.
At Smyrna High School, where she enrolled in 2007, teachers were kinder, but Shee Ku felt intimidated in new ways.
She simply didn’t understand anything in class. She’d never seen a calculator or a computer, and common American concepts tripped her up on exams.
Shee Ku’s people, a group known as the Karen, escaped oppression by the military in Myanmar — formerly known as Burma — by moving to camps and eventually to the United States.
Dozens of Karen families began arriving in Rutherford County in 2007, challenging the local schools in ways faced by few other Middle Tennessee districts outside Nashville. Confronted with teenagers who could not read or write in any language, who could not add or subtract, who in some cases had never been to a school at all, educators had to invent new ways to help students learn.
For the first Karen arrivals in ninth grade, teachers had just four years to make it happen.
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