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Route to refugee success in schools

Districts provide intensive services to students and families who’ve fled their homeland
  • Social-emotional support: Harrisonburg City Schools in Virginia has hired more counselors, interpreters and psychologists to smooth the transition for the 100 new refugees the 6,000-student district receives each year.
  • Success stories: Refugees from Burma, Congo, Iraq, Nepal and Somalia now attend school in the Rochester City School District in New York. Such students have grown from having arrived with no formal schooling to moving ahead of grade level and passing state Regents exams.
  • Rochester City Schools opened its International Academy in 2011 to provide intensive language instruction to its 1,600 refugee students. School staff also work to ensure newly arrived families understand class schedules, how the bus system works and that they can volunteer in their children’s classes.
  • Harrisonburg Superintendent Scott Kizner says American students can develop a better understanding of the world when refugee students talk about their homelands and life experiences.
  • Harrisonburg schools host regular nighttime and weekend events where families from other countries share food, arts, music and other aspects of their cultures.

Young refugees who have fled foreign war zones, religious violence and dire poverty represent some of the country’s most “at-risk” students. In one New York district, for instance, refugee students who recently heard alarms during a fire drill worried the school was being bombed.

About 61,000 refugees age 17 and younger entered the U.S. between 2011 and 2014. Districts in cities designated to receive large numbers of such immigrants—many of whom have had little formal schooling in their home countries—must provide intense academic and social-emotional support to help these students and their families adjust and fulfill their dreams of better lives.

Many district leaders also view refugees as assets who can share their customs and life experiences. This helps American students develop an international perspective—a soft skill seen as critical for professional success in the modern, globalized economy.

Refugees’ challenges don’t end with their arrival in the U.S., says Scott Kizner, superintendent of Harrisonburg City Schools, a Virginia district that enrolls students from Congo, Eritrea, Iraq and other countries.

“To be a refugee, you’re leaving somewhere because of political or religious persecution,” Kizner says. “A lot of our kids have witnessed very bad things—we can’t just act like everything gets better once they get here.”

Arrival survival

Refugee students on their first day attending Rochester City School District in New York have, in past years, gotten off buses and walked right past their school buildings because there was no one to tell them where to go.

To solve these and the much larger problems of acclimation, the district of about 29,000 students opened the Rochester International Academy in 2011. It’s a K12 school with about 380 students where curriculum, language instruction and social services are geared toward those who are new to the U.S., says Principal Mary Andrecolich-Diaz.

The district has about 1,600 refugees, including a recent influx from Burma, Congo, Iraq, Nepal and Somalia. As soon as a student enrolls, staff from the academy (including a grant-funded interpreter) meet with families to explain the basics: the lunch program, academic supplies needed, the daily school schedule and how buses work, among other details.

“The first challenge is communicating,” Andrecolich-Diaz says. “Refugees don’t know the rights they have for their child’s education.”

The Granite School District, which covers parts of Salt Lake City and is the third largest system in Utah, enrolls about 70 percent of the state’s refugee students. Newly arrived students—coming from Afghanistan, Bhutan, Burma, Congo, Iraq, Somalia and about 35 other countries—spend their first two weeks at the district’s Tumaini Center. (Tumaini is a Swahili word meaning “hope”).

Students’ language and academic abilities are assessed as they are introduced to the grading system, schedules and even how lockers work, says Charlene Lui, the district’s director of education equity.

Students who know little English get a crash course in “survival words,”such as restroom, library and principal. They also review lunch menus that display icons to let students with religious dietary restrictions know, for instance, that a meal contains no pork, Lui says.

At the same time, the families also get assistance with job placement, transportation and health care from community organizations—such as Catholic Community Services—designated by the state to assist with resettlement.

“As I’ve worked with refugee families, I’ve learned people we’re receiving are the best of the best,” Lui says. “They have been persistent, continually making sure they get on waiting lists, to get in in front of the line with their paperwork so they can flee their situation.”

Tackling trauma, providing necessities

Before fleeing to the U.S., one refugee family in the Granite district witnessed the violent death of a relative. Such experiences are not uncommon for refugees, making mental health counseling one of the most crucial services a district can provide to newcomers, Lui says.

At the Tumaini Center, staff members meet privately with families to learn about the ordeals they have experienced. A student who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder will receive regular counseling from school counselors or an outside service.

The district also provides professional development in which teachers learn about the ordeals students lived with in refugee camps that could cause bad behavior or academic struggles. Teachers can be more patient with these students or give them more times on assignments, for example.

Teachers also learn about different religious and cultural customs that could impact a student’s performance in a U.S. classroom, Lui says.

“In refugee camps, a lot of time it’s survival of the fittest,” she says. “It’s important that we understand where these students are coming from, explain our rules and procedures, and look at how teachers can work with students to take away any aggressiveness.”

Across the country, Guilford County Schools in North Carolina—where about 100 different languages are spoken among students—receives at least a few refugees every week. A mix of state and federal funds allows the district to provide interpreters for many languages.

And state-funded counselors have trained district teachers to identify students suffering from PTSD or other mental health problems. Those students and their families can get free therapy through nearby University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

Sessions take place on the university campus or at school, depending on a family’s transportation needs, says Candace Bailey, principal of the district’s Doris Henderson Newcomers School.

The district also provides families with food, clothing and other necessities.

“We try to let them know this is a safe place, that they have the right to learn and be free from oppression,” she says.

In less democratic cultures, the public has no role in government, schools or other institutions. Families, therefore, don’t feel like they can participate in a child’s education, Bailey says.

In Guilford County—and throughout the U.S.—refugee parents are strongly encouraged to get involved.

For one, they can help educators reach students who have been traumatized or are having trouble adjusting—for instance, a student might want to draw a picture, rather than write, about what they’re going through.

“Parents know the child best, and they can let us know if there are alternative ways to get through to a child who may not be responding,” she says.

About two hours from Washington, D.C., middle school refugees in Harrisonburg City Schools gather regularly during the day—supervised by a district psychologist—to share their experiences leaving home and their new lives in the U.S.

Over the past few years, the district has not only hired more counselors, psychologists and social workers, but has added interpreters who speak Arabic, Eritrean and Congolese, among other languages.

The district’s regular budget funds these and all other services provided to refugees, which costs about $300,000 to $350,000 a year, Kizner says. Some of the funds come from the district’s approximately $7 million budget for language instruction, he adds.

The district has also trained high school students from the refugee countries to serve as interpreters. “We want to make sure that when we invite families in, their languages will be spoken,” says superintendent Kizner.

The 6,000-student district, which receives about 100 new refugees per year, will also conduct home visits when families don’t have adequate transportation.

For instance, it regularly sends staff to a housing complex where a high number of Kurdish and Arab immigrants live. School personnel will discuss instruction expectations for students, along with extracurricular activities among other issues, Kizner says.

In Rochester, translation services extend outside school buildings, and better help parents navigate the world of bills and responsibilities. For instance, parents may not understand bills or letters they receive from utility companies that warn about power or gas being turned off in the middle of winter, says Andrecolich-Diaz, principal of the international academy.

“It’s so much more than academics,” Andrecolich-Diaz says. “If we don’t take care of the social-emotional piece, kids will not be able to perform well.”

Academic acceleration

In some of the countries from which refugees come, girls don’t attend the same schools as boys—and in some cases, they don’t receive formal education at all. Under the guidance of a bilingual staff member, Arab teenage girls in Harrisonburg, Virginia, meet in a regular support group to talk about transitioning from countries with vastly different customs and laws regarding females.

“They are now in a place that’s much more open,” Kizner says, “where girls and boys are holding hands, and dating.”

The district already has an English-Spanish dual-language program that starts in kindergarten, and school leaders are planning to launch classes that blend English and Arabic.

At Rochester International Academy, refugee students learn English at the same time they study math, social studies and other core subjects. When they first arrive, some students have to master a new alphabet and number system—some even have to learn to pronounce the “TH” sound that is absent in some languages, says Andrecolich-Diaz.

That requires the academy’s teachers to set specific learning goals. For instance, before asking students to write a sentence using adjectives and verbs, teachers will have to show refugees what adjectives and verbs are, she says. Teachers must also differentiate instruction to suit both students who attended school in their home countries and those who have never been in a classroom.

The school receives extra translation help from former students who have been trained and then return to volunteer their services. And it’s all working.

“We now have students moving two, three years ahead of grade level—we have students passing Regents Exams and graduating,” Andrecolich-Diaz says.

Instruction becomes more urgent when it comes to refugee high school students who must become fluent before graduating and going on to college or a career, adds Lui, from Granite schools in Utah.

The district’s Cottonwood High School is home to a specialized language academy where students learn English and core subjects in an accelerated environment. Students can also take electives and participate in extracurricular activities with the school’s general population.

Expand horizons

Refugees are often relocated to metropolitan areas that have an existing population from their country. Expanding cultural horizons is not a one-way street in the districts that serve these cities.

When Kizner was younger and attended James Madison University in Harrisonburg in the 1980s. He recalls that the city had only Italian and Chinese restaurants. Now it has Arabic, Kurdish and authentic Spanish restaurants.

Harrisonburg schools host regular nighttime and weekend events where immigrant students can share their food, art and music with the entire community. For instance, the district recently hosted a Latino ballet troupe—a rare event in a more rural setting like Harrisonburg.

In a 2014 study of California schools, 55 percent of Muslim students (not all of whom were refugees) reported having been bullied. In the wake of the terrorist attack in San Bernardino, California, the U.S. Department of Education at the beginning of 2016 warned all schools to watch out for harassment of refugee students, particularly Muslims.

In Harrisonburg, prejudice against refugee students has been rare, Kizner says, though one newly-arrived middle schooler several years ago had a head-covering pulled off repeatedly by a group of boys. By the time she graduated, she told Kizner nothing like that had happened for several years.

The district has Hispanic, Arab and other ethnocentric student groups that are open to students of any background. “We don’t want these kids to lose their identities,” Kizner says, “because their identities are an important part of their success in the U.S.”

Matt Zalaznick is senior associate editor.