WNPR

Plenty Of Insight, But Little Funding, To Address Refugee Students' Needs In West Springfield

Mar 9, 2017

At Philip G. Coburn Elementary School in West Springfield, Massachusetts, students come from all over the world. Most of the English language learners there arrive as refugees.

Inside an English language learning classroom, second graders were learning English along with math. 

“If I have halves, I have two equal parts," teacher Steph Duggan said to her class. "I have two parts that are the same size.”

Duggan used words, drawings, and hand signals to describe math vocabulary. The children watched, listened, repeated -- and then explained the concepts to each other.

Working with one student was teacher’s aide Sara Almoula, who was once a refugee student herself.

"I’m from Iraq and I came with no English," Almoula said.

Almoula’s father worked as a translator for the American military in Mosul. But it became unsafe. The family fled to Kurdistan -- then six years ago to West Springfield, where Almoula started high school.

"I felt like I couldn’t do it and it was so hard," she recalled. " I had no friends. I had nothing. Everything was new to me."

Almoula, who’s now in college, said a turning point came when a history teacher wanted to know her story.

"He was like asking about our culture and asking about home and so many things that he really care about," Almoula said. "And it made me feel like I want to learn more. "

Inviting refugee students to share their history is a way to help them feel a part of a school.

"Make them feel happy and wanted," said Ken Pransky, who first taught students who were refugees 30 years ago in Amherst.

"It was pretty traumatic," Pransky said. "Their families had just been a part of the Cambodian holocaust and they were living in refugee camps. And they were coming, like in t-shirts, shorts, and sandals in the winter."

Pransky said some kids were so overwhelmed by the large brick school with hundreds of students that -- at first -- they hid under the tables.

"Expectations are different," he said. "Weather’s different. Food is different. Everything is different. It’s scary."

Amherst High School Teacher Joan Snowdon, who taught Cambodian refugees, says if a student has experienced trauma, when teachers are consistent and predictable, that helps them learn.
Credit Nancy Eve Cohen / NEPR

Joan Snowdon also learned a lot from teaching Cambodian refugees. Today, she teaches English language learners at Amherst High School. She said if students have experienced trauma, teaching strategies that are consistent and predictable help them learn. 

"It really helps kids to feel they are in control of their lives if there were times when they felt they were not in control of their lives, when no one was in control of the situation," Snowdon said.

Snowdon even writes the date and the class agenda on the same place on the board every day -- and makes sure they're prepared for the bells.

"It really helps them to know that the bells ring at 7:45 a.m." she said. "That this is what happens in this building. This is where this club always meets. So they can start to feel this is their community, this is their school. They belong here and they’re safe here."

Some kids last attended school in refugee camps or haven’t been in months, years -- or ever.

"Students who have never been to school would need to understand what school is and how one behaves...and the purpose and everything we take for granted about understanding what schools are," said Julie Sugarman, an analyst with the Migration Policy institute.

"They might not have literacy skills in any language. They may need to learn to read and write while they are learning English," Sugarman said. 

Doing this well can cost schools more money for more staff.

"The refugee funding specifically is a tiny amount," Sugarman said. "The only funding that I know of that is specifically dedicated to refugees is the refugee school impact grant and that's about $14.6 million for the whole country."

The New England states received about $1.4 million dollars -- with the lion's share going to Massachusetts, which has the most refugees in the region.

"That money is meant for additional English as a second language, for after school programs, maybe for interpretation or working with parents," Sugarman said. "But it's really very, very limited and only goes to a few school districts in a state, so most refugees are served through the same kind of funding as other English learners."

Colleen Marcus, the director of English Language Learning in West Springfield, Massachusetts where many of the English learners arrive as refugees.
Credit Nancy Eve Cohen / NEPR

And, in fact, schools are supposed to treat refugees the same way as any other student -- not according to their immigration status, but according to their educational needs.

Colleen Marcus, the director of English language learning in West Springfield, said her district gets creative when it comes to funding.

For example, Marcus said, when hiring teacher's aides, the district looks "for someone who speaks a second language, a language that’s going to help our students and teachers and families is just smart."

West Springfield even has a janitor who speaks Nepali. He taught in a school in a refugee camp.

When asked about the challenges of educating children who are refugees, Marcus insisted there are only benefits.

"What we learn from these children and these families about life, and love, and family, and perseverance is a gift to all of us," Marcus said.

See the number of refugees settled in New England since October 2016 in the map below. 

This report is part of a series called "Facing Change," which examines the shifting demographics of the region. It comes from the New England News Collaborative, eight public media companies coming together to tell the story of a changing region, with support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.