Welcome to America: Now Take this Test. The Realities of Refugee Students and their Teachers

About Cari.Harris

Cari Harris has been a Social Sciences educator for over 12 years, in both brick & mortar and online environments. She currently works as the Curriculum and Instructional Support Manager for an online high school dropout recovery program, and is the Assignment Editor and a writer for The Educator’s Room, an online education magazine. Cari is certified in Gamification and has worked on several projects incorporating Gamification into online and traditional education environments. Her areas of expertise include Gamification and Student Resilience & Motivation; Conflict Resolution & Collaboration, and social justice education. Prior to her teaching career, Cari worked for 15 years in civil litigation and as a human rights activist in Northern Ireland and Washington, DC. She holds a BA in Conflict Analysis & Resolution, an Masters in Teaching, and an MA in Political Science. Cari is a James Madison Fellow, and is the author of the book, How to Finish the Test When Your Pencil Breaks: A Teacher Faces Layoff, Unemployment and a Career Shift. You can finder her on twitter at @teachacari.

ESL in AmericaThis year’s ASCD Conference in Los Angeles was weighed down by sessions about the CCSS and flipped classrooms – topics that reasonably should have been big 3+ years ago.  But there were a few diamonds among the rough; educators who presented with prescient understanding oncoming issues that the education community must face.  One of those presentations was by The Educator’s Room writer, Jennifer Healey.  Healey is an ELL teacher in the largest and most diverse high school in Oregon.  (Disclaimer: I worked with Healey at that same high school for 7 years).

Healey and her colleague, Anne Downing, did not just discuss English Language Learning in their session, however.  They shared the realities of the new ELL: refugee students.  Their presentation was titled “Welcome to America: Now Take this Test.”  The realities of today’s ELL programs far exceed the traditional expectations under which districts still operate. 

This is not your parents’ ESL class.  It’s not even the ESL class from when you were in school.  While policymakers and district administrators still seem to be convinced that old forms of ESL education are still applicable, that Spanish is the main language to be dealt with, and that sheltered instruction is no longer necessary, and that all ELL learners should be tested at the same levels as students who have advanced through the American school system since kindergarten, thousands of new refugee students flood into American schools every year.

Over the last few decades that Healey and Downing have been ESL teachers (at all levels, but both now teach at the high school level), they have watched their program change from a traditional group of immigrant and Spanish-speaking migrant students to waves of immigrant students  including Vietnamese, Laotian, Cambodian and Hmong children, then Russian and Ukrainian children, then Bosnian refugees from the Kosovo War, to Eastern African refugees including Ethiopian, Somalian, Rwandan, and Sudanese students.  Now the biggest influx of students comes from Southeast Asia, especially Burmese and Bhutanese children coming from horrific experiences in refugee camps.  In Healey and Downing’s school, over 60 native languages are spoken at home, some which have no translators available, and some which don’t have a written form.  At least 55 of those languages are actively spoken during a regular school day.  Oregon, like most states, does not distinguish between types of ELL students.  More than 40% of students speak another language and have been in an ELD program, but the state does not differentiate which are ELL and which are Refugee Status ELL.

Why does the difference matter?  A refugee is a person who has fled their country and is unable to return due to persecution based on religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular ethnic or social group.  Children in refugee families come to America sometimes having lived their entire lives in decrepit camps where they experienced hunger, emotional, physical and sexual abuse, and of course, no education. Teachers receive immigrant children in their classrooms who fall into one of the following categories:

Pre-literate: the student speaks a native language, but that language has a written form that is rare or does not exist (this is true for most of our current Burmese refugees).  Everything in this student’s background is oral tradition and so he or she has no experience writing language or learning with the written word.

Non-literate: the student speaks a language that does have a written form, but that student has not learned it.

Semi-literate: the student has had some formal education in their native language and can read and write up to about 4th grade level in their own language.

Research shows that it takes about 5 – 7 years to become literate in English if you are semi-literate in your own language when you start.  The reality for most refugee students is that for pre-literate and non-literate students, it takes 7 – 10 years to become English Language Literate.  And yet, for those who arrive as pre- or non-literate teenagers, teachers are expected to hustle them through their coursework, make them take standardized tests, and boot them out the door in 4, possibly 5 years (if the state allows that). 

Because the Supreme Court ruled in Lau v. Nichols in 1974 that each school district has the responsibility to educate all children regardless of English ability, districts have developed their ELL programs to meet this requirement.  However, like most education programs, those making the policies have not kept up with the realities in the classroom.  And indeed, the resources available are hardly worth mentioning.  This is not an issue of curriculum or supplies, though these things are very lacking.  ELL programs working with refugee students in their families go far beyond the classroom to help. Healey and Downing shared just some of the tactics they use to reach their refugee students.  These include (but aren’t limited to):

  • Meeting with families in their homes regularly;
  • Connecting with the city services (like fire department, police, etc.) to introduce families to these services;
  • Creating and running festivals and celebrations for the various ethnic communities;
  • Extra tutoring efforts to get them to graduation.
  • Connections to social and medical services; and
  • Building connections with translators and other community members.

A unique thing that Downing started several years ago was to organize a city-wide soccer tournament.  If there is one thing all refugee children have in common, no matter what part of the world they have come from, it is a love of soccer (though most call it football!).  But most kids, even though they are incredible players, are never allowed on their school teams because they can’t make the required grades, so they never get an opportunity to join organized play or to show their skills.  Downing worked with other community volunteers to organize a tournament similar to a student World Cup.  Donations from civic organizations and services provide the kids with free uniforms and balls to play with.  Now, several years on, it is called the Portland World Cup, and still depends on volunteers to organize this massive event where immigrants, refugees, and students of all ethnic backgrounds can play together and feel confident and successful.

These efforts help struggling parents and families to find connection as well.  The orientation given to them when they arrive includes a brief instruction on how to use things like toothpaste, toothbrushes and deodorant.  It gives them a list of phone numbers to call.  And they are mostly supposed to take it from there.   Downing once arrived at an apartment for a family meeting where the smoke alarm was beeping constantly.  The family had no idea where the noise was coming from or how to fix it and were completely overwhelmed by the constant noise.  She showed them and explained with hand motions that the alarm needed a battery change.  Imagine that as one of the smallest problems a newly settled family encounters, but how effectively it can marginalize and create fear for refugee families.

A little known fact about the refugees brought to this nation is that the adults are expected to find work within 7 months and begin paying back the government for the cost of their flight here.  In an economy like ours, and with the pressures, fears, and uncertainty that refugee families face, this is rarely possible.  Many families are now being recruited out of their first city of arrival and transported to towns in Nebraska, Virginia and Minnesota to giant meat-packing facilities.  These corporate processors can only get newly arrived immigrants to work at the wages and conditions they perpetuate, and often a refugee family with no connections or understanding of the economic or social systems around them can be easily directed into this life.  So districts near facilities like this are fast realizing this new influx of refugee students themselves when they might not have originally been a target refugee location.

There are, of course, not enough hours in the day for teachers alone to provide services for these children.  But often, the only available source of help once they arrive is their school district because the schools are the only places that see the children every day.  Social workers or city services rarely get such regular insight into their lives and struggles to adjust.  Their social problems will be very long term – especially the children coming from abuse and neglect in refugee camps.  Being told they must sit at desks for 7 hours a day, every day, and assimilate to a completely foreign environment is beyond overwhelming. It is probably no surprise that schools are starting to see high numbers of refugee dropouts.

Teachers like Downing and Healey exhaust themselves serving children who have never been socialized to a school environment, but yet are expected to meet yearly proficiency standards on an exam.  Non-ELL teachers are also experiencing the influx and test pressure as well, because many districts, like the one in Oregon where Healey and Downing work, are cutting off sheltered instruction and forcing newly arrived and often pre-literate students into mainstream Science, English, and Math classrooms.

The United States bills itself as a welcoming nation.  We have made it law to provide refuge to those seeking a better life.  But is that better life really available?  The next wave of students is expected to be the surviving children from the Syrian conflict.  Arabic speakers will be needed in districts across the country to help these students and families adjust.  But will cities and school districts provide those and other services?  How much more of rich lives and positive learning experiences would refugee and immigrant children have if ELL programs and teachers were to be given the resources necessary to serve the vast needs of these students?  The answer, more likely, is a greeting like this: “Welcome to America. Now take this test.”

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About the Author:

Cari Harris has been a Social Sciences educator for over 12 years, in both brick & mortar and online environments. She currently works as the Curriculum and Instructional Support Manager for an online high school dropout recovery program, and is the Assignment Editor and a writer for The Educator’s Room, an online education magazine. Cari is certified in Gamification and has worked on several projects incorporating Gamification into online and traditional education environments. Her areas of expertise include Gamification and Student Resilience & Motivation; Conflict Resolution & Collaboration, and social justice education. Prior to her teaching career, Cari worked for 15 years in civil litigation and as a human rights activist in Northern Ireland and Washington, DC. She holds a BA in Conflict Analysis & Resolution, an Masters in Teaching, and an MA in Political Science. Cari is a James Madison Fellow, and is the author of the book, How to Finish the Test When Your Pencil Breaks: A Teacher Faces Layoff, Unemployment and a Career Shift. You can finder her on twitter at @teachacari.

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