(WXYZ) – They are kids who escaped war, genocide, and ISIS.
Now, they are building a new life with the help of a charter school in Madison Heights.
U.S. Congressman Sander Levin visited Keys Grace Academy to visit with the students on Friday.
The public charter school authorized by the Madison District Public Schools aims to preserve the Chaldean, Assyrian and Syriac cultures. It opened as war threatens those cultures. Many students fled from genocide in Syria or Iraq.
Atha Kado, a 7th grader, says she was in Iraq just over a year ago – when her family realized ISIS fighters were less than a quarter mile away killing Christians.
“My uncles came… said we have to leave our house,” Kado said. “I didn’t even take my clothes with me.”
She is around kids who understand, like Stella Alton who is also from Iraq.
“I was like afraid. I don’t want to die. I wanted my future. I thought it was best to come here,” said Alton.
These kids may learn so fast because they take nothing for granted, especially their education. They also give credit to the school.
“I only went to preschool and kindergarten, and when I came to this school it only took me 4 months to learn English,” one student told us.
Throughout the school you will see cultural decor. During our visit, some of the kids were wearing traditional Mesopotamian dress. It is because it is the Assyrian Babylonian New year. The school is all about helping kids acclimate to America while preserving their culture.
As kids took a break from talking about war to play basketball with a congressman – their hearts are in two places. In America – the country that gave them safety… and in the countries they came from – where they have loved ones fighting for their lives.
Like Stella’s grandma in Iraq. “Really worried… like to death. I don’t want her to die. I haven’t see her in years,” Stella Alton told us.
New charter school boosts Chaldean, Assyrian cultures
Lori Higgins Detroit Free Press10:10 p.m. EDT August 6, 2015
Nathan Kalasho spent seven years nurturing a big dream — to create a school that preserved the Chaldean, Assyrian and Syriac cultures. But as that vision turns to reality with the September opening of Keys Grace Academy Charter School, a bittersweet feeling has set in.
“What we’re doing here is coinciding with the genocide that’s going on in Iraq and Syria now,” said Kalasho, president of the charter management company that will operate Keys Grace and a member of the school’s development team. “That’s why it’s so important to open up a school such as this. It’s the duty of educators to try to preserve what’s left.”
The school, which celebrates a ribbon-cutting ceremony tonight and where an open house will be held Friday — is a first of its kind in the United States.
What makes it unique? On top of teaching the state’s standards, the K-12 school will ensure that by the time students graduate high school they’ll be proficient in three languages — English, modern Aramaic and either Spanish or French. The school also will offer a Chaldean culture course and a course in Mesopotamian history.
“I tried to figure out a way to open up a school that would incorporate strong academics and strong discipline, that would nurture students and serve families and at the same time blend in a rich culture,” Kalasho said.
It all stems from a vision Kalasho had — one spurred by his parents who’ve been public school educators since 1992. His parents are Chaldean immigrants from Iraq who came to the United States in the 1970s.
“They’re two people who served the community my entire upbringing. They passed down the importance of education and the preservation of culture to me,” Kalasho said.
That Mesopotamian history course, he said, will be focused on the Babylonian and the Assyrian civilizations. “These are the civilizations that commonly get forgotten about in the Western world and in particular in schools, which is unfortunate,” Kalasho said.
And the school will have a Mesopotamian feel, with antiques, sculptures and replicas of statues, Kalasho said.
The school is the first charter to be authorized by Madison District Public Schools. It is open to students throughout metro Detroit.
“We are very much supportive of what’s going on at Keys Grace,” Madison Superintendent Randy Speck said last week. The school’s location may mean some students currently enrolled in his district might leave.
“We might have some students who will benefit from their school. We also know they’re going to have some students who will benefit from our schools.”
And while the cultural focus is what draws attention, there are several other features of the school that make it stand out. For one, students will receive free transportation from their home to the school — no matter where they live. It’s an unusual service for a charter school, particularly given that its students so far are hailing from 20 metro Detroit school districts — some as close as Warren and Sterling Heights and others as far away as West Bloomfield.
(From left) State representative, Derek Dickow, State Senator Bert Johnson, and school founder, Nathan Kalasho greet during the grand opening of Keys Grace Academy Charter School on Thursday, August 6, 2015, in Madison Heights, MI. Salwan Georges
Students also will receive free uniforms, shoes, tablets or laptops, and breakfast and lunch every day.
The school already has 300 students enrolled — about 70% of whom are Chaldean. Another 200 are expected to enroll before the school year begins in September.
When the school is at full capacity, it’ll enroll up to 600 students, Kalasho said.
“I cannot wait for that moment.”
Contact Lori Higgins: 313-222-6651, email@example.com or @LoriAHiggins
Open house on Friday
Keys Grace Academy Charter School is holding an open house from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Friday at the school, 27321 Hampden in Madison Heights. For more information about the school, call 248-629-7700 or visit www.keysacademies.org.
The official ribbon-cutting ceremony will take place at 5 p.m. on Thursday, Aug. 6.
Founder and director of the school, Nathan Kalasho, says he started the school with a purpose.
“Chaldean people are on the verge of extinction in the Middle East and it is essential we preserve our heritage through education,” said Kalasho. “Education is a human right.”
Kalasho said the school will accomplish this goal through a strict academic and well-disciplined academy dedicated to classic classroom and technological education.
“Our school provides a private school feeling in a public school setting,” he said.
Kalasho and his family are spending about $200,000 to have the school building up and running.
Organizers say about 300 students are already committed, and the school is expecting 200 more to enroll in the next month. The school’s ultimately capacity is 800 students.
Although a majority of them have Chaldean background, students from all communities are welcome.
The school has also scheduled an open house for Friday August 7th from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. for interested families.
The school will have classes for Pre K through 12th grade students. Other than the regular education, school organizers say by the end of their graduation the students will be “proficient in at least three languages” including English, Aramaic and either Spanish or French.
Each student will receive at no cost, two uniforms, shoes, computers, breakfast and lunch each day and free door to door transportation to and from school.
Iraqi-born Dunia Hormez has always tried to pass on her Chaldean culture to her children even as they have attended public schools.
Next month, her lessons at home will be reinforced when she sends five of her kids to what organizers say is the nation’s first Chaldean-centered charter school.
Scheduled to open Sept. 8, the Keys Grace Academy Charter School, in Madison Heights, is aimed at preserving the Iraqi-Christian heritage through education.
“It gives them more of the culture I try to teach them, and they will learn the language, too,” Hormez said.
The school plans a ribbon cutting on Thursday and open house on Friday.
The Keys Grace Academy will open as Metro Detroit has grown to include 150,000 Chaldeans, making the region home to the second-largest Chaldean community in the world. Most Chaldeans are Eastern Rite Catholics who speak their native language, Aramaic, and are indigenous to Iraq, Syria and parts of Iran and Turkey.
Although the school will welcome all children in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade, it is expected that most will be Chaldean. Upon graduation, the students are expected to be proficient in at least three languages: English, Aramaic and either Spanish or French. Each student will be provided two uniforms, shoes, computers, breakfast and lunch, and free transportation.
It will be “a public school with a private school feeling,” as founder Nathan Kalasho and his family will greet students every morning, spokesman Mort Meisner said.
So far, 300 children have enrolled and 200 more are expected in the next month. Ultimately, the school is expected to be at capacity with 800 students.
The Keys Grace Academy will be housed in the former Edison Elementary School on Hampden Street, and will be the first charter authorized by Madison District Public Schools.
“Rather than seeing this as a competition for students, we saw this as a collaboration and as a way of servicing students from other countries,” said Madison District Superintendent Randy Speck.
The school arrives as turmoil in the Middle East has driven refugees, including Chaldeans, from their homeland. More than 30,000 Chaldeans have left the region since 2007 in the wake of the Iraq war, Syrian civil conflict and, more recently, the rise of the Islamic State.
The influx of refugees has led the Chaldean American Chamber of Commerce to expand its not-for-profit arm, the Chaldean Community Foundation, from a 2,000-square-foot building into a 12,000-square-foot building in Sterling Heights. It will be open in November to assist refugees with English learning, career services, citizenship applications, access to health care and more.
Locally, Chaldeans reside primarily in Macomb and Oakland counties, mostly in Warren, Sterling Heights, Shelby Township and parts of Madison Heights.
“Those areas have seen the largest influx of refugees,” said Martin Manna, president of the Chaldean American Chamber of Commerce, which has tracked the community.
The Keys Grace Academy was the vision of Kalasho, a West Bloomfield resident who invested $200,000 in preparing the building. He is president of Kalasho Empowerment of Young Scholars, which will manage the school.
“Chaldean people are on the verge of extinction in the Middle East and it is essential we preserve our heritage through education,” Kalasho said.
“Our school will accomplish this goal through a strict academic and well-disciplined academy dedicated to classic classroom and technological education.”
MADISON HEIGHTS — As Iraq’s Christian population continues to diminish, the language, culture and history of Chaldeans, Assyrians and Syriacs are also dying.
“Right now, we are on the verge of extinction,” said Nathan Kalasho, a local Chaldean activist.
Today, only a projected few hundred thousand Christians remain in Iraq. More than half were forced into exile after the 2003 U.S. led invasion because of religious persecution.
While he can only do so much to help preserve Chaldean, Assyrian and Syriac heritage in Iraq, Kalasho is determined to keep his people’s language, culture and history alive in metro Detroit for future generations.
Kalasho is the president of Kalasho Empowerment of Young Scholars, which manages Keys Grace Academy, a one-of-a-kind charter school dedicated to preserving the language, culture and history of Chaldeans, Assyrian and Syriacs.
Kalasho said the idea was to incorporate the heritage of Iraqi Christians.
“The only way to maintain our heritage is to make sure it is passed down to future generations,” he said.
The K-12 school, located at 27321 Hampden St. in Madison Heights, is scheduled to open in September and serve about 500 students. A grand opening ceremony is expected to take place Thursday, Aug. 6 from 5 to 8 p.m..
The non profit Academy’s curriculum follows the Michigan State Board of Education guidelines for all schools and offers tuition-free classes.
Keys Grace Academy’s mission is to prepare 21st century students to think and succeed in a diverse, technological and ever changing world through a partnership of homes, school and community. It will provide broad instruction of language arts, mathematics, science, social studies, computer science, art, music, physical education and health.
The school will offer classes in which students are taught how to read and write the dying ancient language of Aramaic spoken by Christ. It is spoken by Chaldeans, Syriacs and Assyrians.
Locally, many Iraqi Christian churches and groups have also stepped up efforts to preserve the language by offering courses in Aramaic. There is a lot of concern the language will be lost among future generations, which is why the launch of the Academy is so important to metro Detroit’s large Iraqi Christian community.
“This is about our community and the community at large,” Kalasho said.
The school is open to everyone and not limited to Chaldean, Syriac and Assyrian students.
For Kalasho, the plight of Iraqi Christians is personal. His parents trace their roots to the country. He can still remember his mother and father both crying after their villages were taken over by militants.
Most Chaldeans, Syriacs and Assyrians in metro Detroit trace their roots back to the Nineveh plains of northern Iraq, which is empty of Christians for the first time in history, as a consequence of the terrorist group ISIS seizing control of Mosul last summer.
After the invasion of Mosul, Kalasho was one of many Iraqi Christians to visit Washington D.C. and advocate on behalf of Iraq’s religious minorities.
“I met so many Chaldeans, Assyrians and Syriacs who were more passionate then I ever thought I could be,” he said.
Many of the Christians who were given the ultimatum by ISIS to flee Mosul, convert to Islam, pay a special tax or die have now resettled in southeast Michigan, including Madison Heights, Sterling Heights and Oak Park. Kalasho, who previously served as the president of the Hazel Park-based INVEST Schools system, said opening the school in Madison Heights was a factor because of the sizable Iraqi Christian presence in that community.
The Academy plans on working with the Chaldean American Ladies of Charity to help underserved students and their families.
States with large Iraqi Christian communities around the country have welcomed the idea of a charter school focused on preserving their history. Kalasho said there are plans to expand in the future.
“It will be the first of many,” he said.
For more information on the school, call 248.629.7700 or visit: