Barton School marks its 50th year
By Mary Stamp
Fifty years ago, after Amsel Barton retired from teaching at Eastern Washington State College, her desire to help people improve their lives through gaining literacy and job skills led her to start the Barton School at First Presbyterian Church in Spokane.
That adult basic education school, based on volunteers teaching students one-on-one, has helped many refugees and immigrants learn English and become economically independent.
For 40 of the 50 years, Mildred Scheel has carried on the mission as the volunteer director.
Barton School will celebrate its 50th anniversary from 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., Wednesday, March 20, at First Presbyterian Church, 318 S. Cedar. Several former students and teachers will join in celebrating their years of friendships and learning.
"In preparing for the 50th celebration, we have been talking with early students who have had successful careers in art, business and vocations," said Mildred, who grew up in Alabama and came west to teach.
She taught home economics at North Central and Lewis and Clark High Schools before she started as a volunteer teacher at Barton School.
Wanting to help people change their lives for the better, Amsel did not plan to start a ministry. She had visited welfare and employment agencies and offered to volunteer to help adults improve their skills, but they did not accept her offer. So she told her vision to William Lindsay, her pastor, and he offered some Sunday school rooms.
Although she expected the students to be American-born, the first student was a Japanese war bride, recently divorced and the mother of three school-aged children. She wanted to learn to read and write English. The second student was her friend, another serviceman's Japanese wife. Wives of other servicemen from Korea, Thailand, Italy and Japan were early students.
Over the years, thousands of students have come as refugees and immigrants from 72 countries. They reflect world events and immigration policies, from the arrival of Vietnamese refugees to many who settled in Spokane from former republics of the Soviet Union and those welcomed as refugees from many nations today.
Amsel wanted to tutor one student at a time. By December 1968, she had eight students, so she appealed to the church for volunteers. Seven members responded. In January 1969, the students began meeting regularly with the volunteer teachers.
In 1971, the program was named Barton School after Amsel. In the 1970s, it offered morning, afternoon and evening sessions. Day programs have been Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and evening sessions were Tuesdays and Thursdays.
The night school continued until 1989, when there were 110 in the day and night schools.
Now 35 teachers tutor 20 students. There are fewer students today because community colleges offer ESL classes.
Amsel served as director from 1969 to 1972, but preferred to teach. So Betty Morse became director of the day school from 1972 to 1977, Bridget Piper from 1977 to 1979 and Mildred since then. Ten others served as directors of the night school.
Along with the original goal for students to develop literacy and job skills, the school added work-related vocabulary and assistance with job applications and interviews, tax preparation and applying for vocational licenses.
The church offered more Sunday school rooms to accommodate students and teachers. When there were 50 students, there were 75 teachers because some volunteered just one or two of the three days a week. Some were substitutes. Eventually, the school offered child care.
Initially, there were no funds for materials. Many early teachers had been school teachers and brought books they had. There was no space to store materials. Some used the each-one-teach-one curriculum of the Laubach Literacy program in 1957.
"The church identified Barton School as a ministry, giving it $100 to $200 for paper, pencils and a few books," said Mildred.
By the time she became director, she had a space for an office. When the church built an addition with the gym in 1999, they designated two rooms at the end of the hall, so they now have bookshelves, cupboards and desks for office space.
Office staff help match students with teachers and set up which days the different teachers come.
"All are volunteers except for child care staff," Mildred said.
Because a similar school for refugees in Tacoma receives federal funds and grants, staff need to keep records on numbers of students and hours taught.
"We do not keep track of that," Mildred said. "Being all-volunteer, we are more flexible."
The church provides space, lights, heat, postage and custodial help. Sometimes the school receives donations, which they use to buy workbooks, resources and supplies.
"Our two-page list of materials includes Richard Scarry picture dictionaries, retail catalogues, and magazines," Mildred said.
"We reuse workbooks. Students don't write the words in them, but on a separate piece of paper. They write the whole sentence, which adds an extra layer of learning," she said.
Different materials meet needs of different students, and each teacher has different ideas.
"We are sensitive in matching students and teachers because of cultural dynamics," she said.
In the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, Barton School had long waiting lists. Students could stay only five years. Many come to learn English. Some work on citizenship. Some move on quickly. Some have less clear objectives, wanting to learn as much as possible.
"Now we limit students to three years, but they can reapply based on new goals," Mildred said.
"I have learned that each student is different, so we don't make judgments or assumptions," Mildred said. "The first five students from one country may share characteristics, but the sixth may be different. Some differences are cultural, and some are individual.
"We advise teachers that when they do or say something, they may reach a cultural impasse, and not know what happened," Mildred said. "Sometimes it's just personality."
Students seek opportunities.
One began washing windows for teachers, then became a custodian in a downtown building before he graduated from college.
While some teachers just teach, many students and teachers keep in contact after working together.
Mildred said teachers make a difference in students' lives, and students make a difference in teachers' lives.
She said she volunteers because she is disturbed and sad to see conditions around the world.
"I can't go to those places, but here I meet people from all over the world and help change lives of people from many countries as they fit into our culture," she said.
Audrey Wagner, featured in a March 2009 Fig Tree story, drove on Fridays from Reardan for 29 years until 2009. She recruited and mentored other volunteer teachers from her church.
For many years, one couple drove from Lewiston to teach at the night school. They moved to Spokane and taught in the day school.
Mildred remembers Amsel saying, "If you drop a pebble in water, you never know how far the ripples will go out."
"We don't know how far the school reaches into people's lives," she said.
A Shadle Park High School counselor taught several students. She took a man who had been an auto mechanic in Poland to different auto shops to help him find a job. He knew how to do the repairs. He just needed to learn English.
Mildred remembers a Russian woman whose son was not allowed to leave with her. When she first came, she would tell of her son and her chin quivered. She was matched with a teacher who had just lost her husband.
"They needed each other," Mildred said. The student learned Americans were not scary, and the teacher learned Russians were not scary. The student was a devout Christian who survived in an underground church. She overcame her fear of Americans, realizing that people are not the government.
"Students and teachers see through stereotypes, realize how stereotypes were created and learn to look beyond them to see individuals," Mildred said.
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Copyright@ The Fig Tree,March, 2019