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District Dialogue

Virginia school district opens doors to refugee students

Superintendent Scott Kizner of Harrisonburg City Public Schools fosters a global learning environment
 Harrisonburg City Public Schools Superintendent Scott Kizner has seen the refugee population more than double in six years.
Harrisonburg City Public Schools Superintendent Scott Kizner has seen the refugee population more than double in six years.

Tucked among the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia is a high-poverty school district that looks a lot like the United Nations.

It was something Harrisonburg City Public Schools Superintendent Scott Kizner was most proud of. “These refugee students feel like a part of the social fabric,” Kizner says. “And every day all students at this district feel like they are visiting the United Nations. It’s an education for a lifetime.”

The district sits in a refugee resettlement city and has about 6,000 students in pre-K through grade 12, with English language learners accounting for about 37 percent or about 2,000 students. Of that, about a quarter of them are Arab and/or Kurdish. A growing crop of students also come from Eritrea in Africa and Paraguay in South America, he adds.

In Kizner’s six years as chief of the diverse district, he has seen his student population include more refugees. “We’ve seen the increase in our refugee population really as a mirror image of what’s going on internationally,” he says.

When Kizner started in 2010, the dropout rate was over 10 percent. Last year, it dipped to 3 percent. And in 2010, 45 percent of students graduated with an advanced diploma (a Virginia program) while last year 54 percent of students earned one.

Kizner spoke with managing editor Angela Pascopella about the challenges and solutions with a large refugee population.

Can you explain how the refugee population has grown over the years?

Five years ago, our Arab and Kurdish population represented 3 percent of the overall student population. Now it’s about 8 percent, so it’s gone up by almost 300 percent.

We were educating all of the ELLs the same, but since then, we’ve recognized that these students often needed some additional support. So we hired more staff members who can speak Arabic and Kurdish.

We also have the Newcomer program to welcome those new to the country and our school system. In 2010, we had three programs in elementary, middle and high school. Now we have six programs for the refugees and other ELLs.

You stated that ELLs reveal ‘the beauty of our diversity.’

We look at this as the greatest opportunity. In 2010, we opened our first dual language program at one school where children were learning in English and Spanish. Now in 2015 we have those programs in three elementary schools and two middle schools. Kids of all different backgrounds and cultures are learning together and appreciating other cultures.

In addition, parents from all around the world are coming together and learning and socializing together. And we are building a community of respect and diversity through our academic programs.

What else did you do to involve the ELLs, particularly the refugee students?

We wanted to make sure access was available to students regardless of background. Access to programs such as specialized science, technology, engineering and math academies at the middle and high school level. We also monitor AP and dual enrollment classes for college credit and the percentage of our ELL students receiving advanced diplomas.

Equity audits are done for all of our specialized programs to make sure there is equitable participation.

STEM programs also offer problem-based learning and a math curriculum, called Singapore Math. We knew we needed more visual representation for our ELL children to learn math.

And we built a complete, comprehensive Fine Arts Academy at the high school. It offers dance, visual arts, painting—and kids all around the world have access to art, so children from different countries are sharing their culture via art classes.

One thing we learned with the refugees, and this was even before my arrival here, is that they were not feeling as integrated into the school system. They were previously taught in specialized classes, and not mainstreaming or socializing with other students.

You say you believe that every child can be successful if adults are involved. How do you provide that for your students?

We’re constantly learning. I’m not the most easy person to work for because I’m never satisfied.

We embraced the refugee students greatly. What we want to do is make sure that children and families are involved. So we have evening programs for them to learn English. We have math nights and writing/reading nights to get parents to spend some time and see what we are teaching their children.

And Harrisonburg High School Principal Cynthia Prieto has morning tea with Russian and Ukranian families. Two of our elementary principals host parent and community programs throughout the year for Russian, Ukrainian, Kurdish/Arabic, Spanish and Eritrean parents. Attendance varies from five to 20 parents.

What emotional trauma or other problems do refugee students come with, and how does the district address that?

As you know, we have children who have witnessed or have been victims of crimes. We’ve had specialized groups who have observed refugee students—university researchers, mental health and community health professionals. How do they go from living in their old country—with their own standards, practices and religion—and come to the U.S. and the state of Virginia?

The process to gain refugee status in the U.S. is not quick. The federal government screens them, and there is a lot of anxiety and fear of the unknown—they don’t know what to expect. But one thing about Harrisonburg: We have other refugee families who have already settled here and newcomers see they are safe. The local mosque is a huge support to them.

We have a group for Arabic girls at the high school and it’s all done in their native language. It is a chance for Arabic-speaking girls to work through the acculturation process without having language get in the way of expressing themselves.

We also have a group of Arabic/Kurdish/Congolese/Eritrea peer leaders. These are refugee students who are trained to be peer mentors to newly-arrived refugees to help with transition.

We have adult classes and child enrichment in the evenings in conjunction with our adult learning programs at our regional Career and Technical Center at Skyline Literacy, which is an organization to teach adults to read and speak English. Our staff members also go into the community on weekends and evenings to support literacy and recreation/social activities, such as reading nights and cookouts.

And we have taken a position against the federal and state accountability procedures that state everyone is to graduate in four years. Some of our students are learning the English language later in life. They are not graduating until maybe 19 or 20 years old.

Also, we’ve put a lot of resources into supporting teachers who work with kids in the evenings during the week and on weekends. We have a staff that is really committed and really feel passionate about helping all children.

I walk around the hallways and I see the support in classes. It’s pretty powerful and impressive.

What about student-on-student behavior? Is there bullying?

We work hard on cultural sensitivity. When I first got here, there was an Arab/Kurdish girl in middle school—she was one of the first two girls in our STEM academy when it first opened up.

She wears a hijab and she’s on the student advisory committee. She’s one of the leaders of the district and other kids respect her. We made sure these children feel a part of the school fabric.

What does trauma training look like?

Counselors met with the staff, including administrators and myself, for training. A clinical psychologist out of Richmond explained to us the reasons for trauma, including a sudden change in life and/or witnessing a horrifying event.

And then she offered strategies to use:

  1. You can spend one-on-one time with students and learn about them, talk to them. Let them know that there is an adult they can trust.
  2. Recognize that students have different ways to exhibit frustration or stress. Learn that students might be depressed and not know how to express themselves.

So we, as adults, need to learn and listen and reach out. For a teacher, if kids didn’t hand in an assignment on time, give them extra time. Give them a chance.

One example of this in action is when an elementary principal called me about a student from Eritrea who had just enrolled and started throwing things in class and scratching people. So we made an effort to get to learn more about her, talk to her, and not suspend her. She knew little English.

Now, she’s a beautiful girl, well-liked in middle school, and academically she’s knocking it out of the park. We didn’t give up on her. DA