Heber City • When KaPaw Htoo arrived in this country, he wanted to be a singer.
After a few months in Utah schools, the Karen refugee aspired to become a doctor.
By the end of his first school year in the U.S., he had a different outlook.
"I think I will work in the meat company," the 17-year-old said in Karen, a language spoken by his people nearly 8,000 miles from here. KaPaw Htoo was born in a Thai refugee camp to parents who, like many Karen, fled oppression and violence in their nearby home country of Burma, now known as Myanmar. He and his family were among more than 800 refugees, including many children, who moved to Utah between the falls of 2010 and 2011.
The Wasatch High student was lucky to leave the Thai refugee camp, where he and his family relied on food rations and weren't allowed to work or come and go as they pleased. They had little hope for a better future there.
It hasn't been easy here either. KaPaw Htoo (pronounced CAW-paw TOO) a quiet teen who exudes a cool confidence, smiling often and changing his hairstyle daily has more opportunity now, but his future remains uncertain.
Learning English has been a daily struggle for KaPaw Htoo, who just finished his junior year.
He still speaks very little. He reads and writes at about a kindergarten level. The teen, who arrived in Utah with only a third-grade education from Thailand, probably won't graduate with his class next year.
KaPaw Htoo also has spent the last year watching his dad struggle to support him, his mother, and four younger siblings with a job at a Heber City laundry company.
KaPaw Htoo's father, Ka Myee, wants better for his son.
"We came here [but] it is not for us," Ka Myee, 41, said through an interpreter of himself and his wife. "It is for our children."
But those dreams can sometimes seem frustratingly distant.
Bridging a chasm • On a recent day near the end of the school year, KaPaw Htoo sat in art class, quietly scratching away at an etching of a gargoyle, as the conversations of other students swirled around him. The ear buds he wore whenever he had a free moment at school were in place, delivering tunes from a playlist that included Katy Perry, Rhianna and rap.
Art teacher Liz Sprackland stood behind him as he worked.
"Beautiful," she said, tapping a finger to his creation. Minutes later, she hung his etching on the board, an example of exceptional work.
The chasm between KaPaw Htoo and his classmates seemed to temporarily disappear. It was ever present in his other courses.
In science class, KaPaw Htoo and another Karen classmate often sat wordlessly at the back of the room while Brian Felsch taught lessons and administered quizzes and tests. An aide assisted them, and they frequently retook the quizzes later with the translation help of Moo Eh Htoo, a Karen girl who had already lived in America for five years. She transferred to Wasatch High shortly after KaPaw Htoo, who was believed to be the school's first refugee. (The two are not related.)
Still, the quizzes sometimes seemed more like games of telephone than academic exercises.
During one quiz in the final month of school, Felsch asked the boys to name the two elements that make up water. Their Karen classmate translated. The boys replied in Karen.
The girl turned to Felsch to tell him they didn't understand. KaPaw Htoo smiled as if to apologize, as if to show he wished he could be more helpful.
Earlier that day, KaPaw Htoo had still been practicing words like "monkey," "pizza" and "breakfast" in Brent Price's English classes for students learning the language. Of KaPaw Htoo's eight classes this past term, five focused on bolstering his English.
But even in those classes, KaPaw Htoo was behind the others, most of whom were Spanish-speaking.
That same day Price called on KaPaw Htoo to read a sentence aloud from the novel Where the Red Fern Grows.
He halted at nearly every other word, unable to read "always," "kind," "smile," "face," "blood" or "water."
KaPaw Htoo doesn't know even a fraction of the English words most students do by the time they reach high school. "You can't feed them that type of information in a year," Price said.
One more year, however, is all KaPaw Htoo has left of high school.
Teachers learning too • Ultimately, KaPaw Htoo barely passed science with a D minus. It was an improvement from the F he had in the class weeks earlier.
He blamed only himself.
"When I see F, I feel like I'm heartbroken," KaPaw Htoo said in an interview, through an interpreter. "I think I need to try harder."
He earned an A in art.
Education is everything to KaPaw Htoo and his family. When asked, in an interview, if he wanted to continue with school next year, KaPaw Htoo's eyes widened, as if he'd never considered not continuing. He immediately said "yes" in Karen.
"If we are more educated, it is easier for us to find a job," he said. "Also, the job will be a better job." His parents' financial struggles weigh on his mind.
His teachers wanted to give him the best education they could, but it's been a learning experience for many of them, too.
It was the first time Felsch, for example, taught a student who didn't speak any English or Spanish. Teachers in other, more urban districts, such as Granite and Salt Lake City have been educating refugees for years. Teachers in the rural Wasatch District have not.
Felsch said it can be tough to teach such students without additional training coupled with the many demands on his time.
KaPaw Htoo was just one student in a science class of 28 that included freshmen, seniors and other students learning English. Felsch is now working on his English as a Second Language Endorsement so he'll be able to better reach kids like KaPaw Htoo in the future.
"If I had started out with what I know now," Felsch said, "their scores would have been higher."
Price said next school year, the school plans to offer "sheltered" math and science classes, in addition to the sheltered English it already offers, just for students learning the language like KaPaw Htoo.
Experts have varying opinions on the best way to reach students learning English. Rita Brock, a specialist at the State Office of Education, believes dual immersion is the best approach, and when that's not available, students can be kept in regular classes with extra help from teachers and tutors. Dee Caldwell, an assistant professor at the Urban Institute for Teacher Education at the University of Utah, said sheltered instruction is best.
But KaPaw Htoo and his family might not be here next year for the new sheltered math and science classes.
Continuing education • KaPaw Htoo's father is considering moving the family to Nebraska, where he's heard he can get a job making more money. A few Karen families have already left Utah for jobs at Omaha meatpacking plants, said Ler Wah, a Karen Community of Utah leader.
His father's major hesitation is that moving would require his kids to change schools.
"I don't know if out-of-state the other teachers will love my kids like the teachers here," Ka Myee said.
And KaPaw Htoo has been making progress. He was quiet in class, but he was listening. Price was pleased to see how well KaPaw Htoo did on the Utah Academic Language Proficiency Assessment, a test for English learners.
Not surprisingly, he scored at the lowest level overall. But he scored more than 60 percent on the listening section and nearly as high in reading. Caldwell said listening is often one of the first skills older students gain when learning English, and speaking is often among the last, as they worry about sounding awkward in front of peers.
"I think he comprehends more that's coming at him," Price said.
Still, there's no denying KaPaw Htoo is a long way from college, a high school diploma or even a GED. A lack of enough credits will likely keep him from graduating with his class.
He can continue to earn credit toward a diploma through the district's adult education program after high school. But he must learn English first, said Claire Mair, the district's adult education coordinator. He also likely won't pass a GED exam without first learning English.
That's no small feat. Research shows it can take newcomers to America five to seven years to learn enough English to be successful in school, said Cinthya Saavedra, an assistant professor of English as a second language and bilingual education at Utah State University.
"The good news is he has as long as it takes him to earn his 24 credits [required by the state for graduation]," Mair said. "The bad news is, to be honest, that's a difficult thing he's doing, learning English at the same time he's learning content."
To learn English, he can take free classes through the district's adult education program. Already, a teacher visits his town-house complex four nights a week to teach English to the half dozen or so Karen families living in Heber City.
Mair said the district will walk KaPaw Htoo through the process next school year, making sure he understands exactly what he must do to continue his schooling after high school.
Becoming American • KaPaw Htoo knows it might be a long journey.
"I think that after I finish college, I want to become a doctor," KaPaw Htoo said when pressed on what happened to his earlier dream. "But as for now, when I finish high school, I'm not in that position yet."
Pah Tmay, assistant chairman for the group Karen Community of Utah, said most Karen who live in Utah work as dishwashers, housekeepers or in factories. Community leaders have higher hopes for members of the next generation, like KaPaw Htoo.
"Most of the teenage young people are very motivated," Pah Tmay said. "[I'm] optimistic about those people graduating and getting very good jobs here."
KaPaw Htoo is also optimistic. "I think if we try, we can learn," he said in Karen.
His friends and teachers have faith in him, too.
After all, he's already bridged social gaps, attracting friends with little more than an open, friendly demeanor.
His friends here, including a number of American boys, aren't exactly sure how KaPaw Htoo came to America or why. But they have the sense that despite his small stature and slight frame, he's tough and has been through a lot.
On the last day of school this year, several of KaPaw Htoo's new American friends sat near him as students signed yearbooks in Wasatch High's light-filled commons area. They joked and communicated with KaPaw Htoo through hand slaps, one-word questions and smiles.
One boy asked KaPaw Htoo to sign his yearbook, pointing at KaPaw Htoo, then his yearbook and handing him a pen.
KaPaw Htoo scrawled a line in Karen. Below the Karen, he wrote the English translation.
"I love you my friend."
Rosemary Winters contributed to this report. Who are the Karen?
The Karen are an ethnic minority group in the country of Myanmar, formerly known as Burma.
In the past, the Burmese government has suppressed movements for democracy. There also have been ongoing ethnic conflicts between the predominant Burmans and minority groups such as Karen, Karenni, Chin and others. And authorities have repeatedly violated human rights, according to the U.S. Department of State.
More than 2 million people, many of them ethnic minorities, fled Burma to Thailand, Bangladesh, India, China, Indonesia, Malaysia and other nations, the department reports. In the past decade, more than a thousand refugees from Burma and Thailand have been resettled in Utah.
Source Â» Associated Press and U.S. Department of State, "Background Note: Burma," Aug. 3, 2011.
Third in a series
The Salt Lake Tribune has been following Karen refugee KaPaw Htoo through his first year of school in Utah. With just one more year of high school, can KaPaw Htoo catch up? Read the first story in the series here http://tinyurl.com/d4fc7rg. Read the second story here http://tinyurl.com/crppxcp.