Oklahoma school a beacon of acceptance amid challenging times


Cafeteria manager Yanet Viamontes hugs library assistant Mais Shalabi in the hallway at Prairie Vale Elementary School. The staff celebrated Viamontes with chants and applause after she passed her citizenship exam. (Photo provided by Prairie Vale Elmentary School)

Immigrants have been among the most-affected by the turbulent political climate of recent years. But Prairie Vale Elementary School in the Deer Creek School District has maintained its promise to be a center of acceptance and support for its foreign-born staff members.

One of five Deer Creek elementary schools, Prairie Vale prides itself on its support of immigrants, said Michelle Anderson, principal at the school for 17 years.

“Being a supportive school has always been important to me, we appreciate each other’s differences and we celebrate them,” Anderson said.

“The school feels like it is really my home because sometimes when you are from a different country and have different traditions, you feel like an outsider, but here I have never felt different than the rest of the staff,” said Mais Shalabi, a library assistant from Jordan who has worked at the school for 10 years.

Introducing her students to world cultures has helped Anderson meet her goals.

Twelve years ago, Anderson and Lucy Berry, a principal at Bourton Meadow Academy in Buckingham, United Kingdom, decided to partner with schools across the world and provide students with a multicultural experience.

Berry was teaching fifth-graders about extreme weather, specifically tornadoes. She said she was looking to partner with elementary schools in Oklahoma when she came across Anderson’s contact information.

After exchanging emails, they decided to collaborate. Three weeks later, Berry traveled from England to visit Anderson and saw firsthand the damage of the tornado outbreak of Feb. 10–11, 2009.

Anderson and Berry then came up with a multicultural experience project, where students at Bourton Meadow learned from Prairie Vale students about what it is like to live in a state with frequent tornadoes, which led to the development of a pen pal program.

“Michelle made videos for us on what a tornado drill looks like, and we had a virtual learning platform as well,” Berry said.

After that, Berry said, Anderson emailed schools in Italy, Belgium and Germany to partner with their program, and the two of them went on a road trip across Europe and met with other teachers.

The goal, Anderson said, was to form more tolerant students and shape them into tolerant adults.

Anderson said she has tried to build an environment at Prairie Vale where everybody feels equally valued and welcomed.

Shalabi said she contracted COVID in December. While recovering at home, she frequently received text messages and phone calls from the staff, ensuring she was OK.  When she returned to school, she was welcomed by an ovation of students and staff.

Berry has also emphasized on her campus the importance of supporting immigrants.

“It’s important to celebrate everybody, our similarities and our differences, and we have a lot of languages spoken in our school, and we do different cultural events and offer resources for hte children so they see themselves reflected in our community,” Berry said.

This year, Prairie Vale hosted its fourth naturalization ceremony. Anderson said the idea originated when a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services agent contacted her on Facebook after Prairie Vale highlighted students learning about other countries on its social media platforms.

The ceremony, held on April 22, became extra special because the school’s cafeteria manager, Yanet Viamontes, who came to the United States via Cuba, was becoming a U.S. citizen.

Viamontes said when Anderson found out she had passed the citizenship test, she organized a celebration in her honor, and students and staff were filmed as they cheered for her while she walked down the school hallways.

The video was posted on the school’s Facebook page and went viral, and many media outlets interviewed Viamontes and Anderson.

“After the video went viral, the principal had the idea of ​​calling immigration services and ask them if they could do the ceremony at our school so that students and staff could enjoy the whole process,” Viamontes said. “Eight of us were there to become citizens.”

The music teacher organized a performance, and third-grade students sang patriotic songs. Anderson said the school often uses music to celebrate special moments.

It’s not just Prairie Vale staff members who welcome people from different backgrounds. Vilma Lopez, a cafeteria worker born in Cuba, said the students have shown her a lot of love, and despite her not being fluent in English they always greet her warmly.

“From the beginning, I have only received love and support from everybody at the school, so I would like to continue to see the school in the same direction,” Viamontes said. “Because surely those children who are learning how to be kind and not discriminate against anybody regardless of their origin or color will become great men and women.”

Robert Viamontes, who also received his citizenship in April, is the son of Yanet Viamontes. Gaylord News is a reporting project of the University of Oklahoma Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication.