The Refugee Challenge We Are Already Facing


Child_Soldier_by_Paul_AlanjonesIt’s funny. As I read all the comments about Syrian refugee children and their potential arrival in the United States over the next couple months, I marvel at people’s opinions and their lack of knowledge. I have a unique perspective because my children both attend a school where there is a high population of English Learners and children in poverty. It also serves a large population of refugees. Refugees that arrive from all over the world, places with terrorist organization every bit as active as those in Syria, just without the headlines.

There are students at my kids’ school who, just last year, lived in fear of violence. Some of them might have been carrying rifles themselves; after all, they arrived from war-torn countries like Somalia and Nigeria were the recruitment of children as soldiers is an established practice. The possibility also exists that their parents may have been complicit in acts that you or I would find reprehensible. Last year, an older boy from Africa woke his mother by pouring hot coffee on her as she slept, but now he is a student here. Yet somehow we’ve welcomed them all and done our best to educate them with remarkably few incidents due to the dedicated professionals who interact with these children every day. In Nashville those professionals are among the best in the country and the districts plan among the boldest.

Yesterday, I read to my son’s kindergarten class. A class made up of children with names I couldn’t even begin to spell, yet their names roll off my son’s tongue like Mark or John would roll off mine. I look at these children, and I just marvel at the breadth of experience that my son is privy to because of them. We read I Am Helen Keller, and while I won’t say they paid rapt attention – they are kindergartners, after all – I think the message resonated. And when I read Stick and Stone, they laughed aloud. These are children like any other children and I got as much from them as they could ever get from me.

A couple years ago, I had a conversation with the then-head of Teach for America in Nashville. She made the assertion that we always need to remember that kids of color are not in the classroom to be cultural experiences for white children. At the time, I kind of bought into that, but after seeing my children thrive in their school and interact with their multicultural friends, I find her statement to be ignorant. Every child in the classroom is there to be a cultural experience for every other child in the classroom. We all learn from each other.

Reading and math is important, but what good is that knowledge if a child has no ability to interact with their peers? The world is changing rapidly. Our children will not be able to function in silos. Their peers will be Egyptians, Chinese, Mexican, Thai, Somalian, French, and yes, Syrian. What that future actually looks like will depend a great deal upon the skills that our children develop now. Why would we not provide them a safe place to hone those skills in their formative years?

The thing is, this experience has to become more equitable. We have to ensure that these children are getting an education that is not dissimilar from the one our children receive in wealthier schools. They must be exposed to athletics, music, art, industrial arts, and not just focused on meeting testing demands. We must help them assimilate in a manner that allows them to get the best of this country. The same way many of our ancestors were assimilated when they arrived on Ellis Island more than 100 years ago. At that time, Ireland, Italy, Germany, and even Puerto Rico were considered scary places to be from.

The first step is that we have to recognize that all English learners are not the same. There is a huge difference between refugee children and immigrant children. Yet on test score reports, there is no statistical differentiation. Children who arrive from Egypt are vastly different from children who arrive from Iraq, though both are of Middle Eastern descent. Even children arriving from the same country are not the same. A wealthier school may have children from Mexico, but these children have parents who have an average of a high school education, while a school like my children’s has children whose parents have an average education of second grade. For immigrant children, language mastery may be the key to unlock the door, while for refugee children it may be just the beginning . We must force ourselves to look at EL children as we look at all children, each with unique talents and needs.

If you look at a list of so-called failing schools, you’ll notice something interesting. None of those schools are in wealthy neighborhoods, and the majority of them have either a high concentration of students from high poverty, high English learners, or both. This can be traced directly back to how we test those new to the country. In Tennessee, every student is tested and if the student has been in the country for a year, their test counts against the school and against the teacher. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that if you can barely speak the language and your parents are still trying to navigate the system, you are not going to produce spectacular test results.

What that translates to is a heavy focus on getting these children ready to test. In a wealthier school, you don’t have to be as relentless because children are having lessons reinforced at home. Whereas children who are English learners have parents who may be working two jobs and trying to acclimate on their own. Teachers are under a constant barrage in high EL schools to prepare children to test. There is no time to explore other interests, children may be exposed to the same subjects as children at wealthier schools but exploration seldom goes as deep. Wealthier schools also have the luxury of forming parent organizations that are capable of raising tens of thousands of dollars to offset the cost of required technology for these state tests. In a high EL/poverty school these organizations are virtually non-existent. It makes a difference.

There is also the fore mentioned challenge of language. Many of these children arrive at these schools not speaking a bit of English. Both of my children sit next to kids who don’t speak English at all. In my son’s class, one was distraught every morning and would cry for his mother. Peter would come comfort him and help him get his breakfast. The child has slowly become acclimated, and I can’t help but think my son played a part in it. Peter learned a lesson about what it means to be different and alone and how kindness can change the picture. His classmate learned that even if you find that you are alone and different, there are friends waiting to be made. I think this lesson is every bit as important as the grade level they are reading on.

When we talk about language we don’t give a clear picture either. You will hear so-called experts talk about how quickly students learn English and so things aren’t as hard as they’re painted out to be. What they are referring to is “playground language,” and they are right, children master this quickly. Sometimes within a year. Unfortunately, excelling at the tests requires a mastery of “academic language,” and that takes four to seven years to master and is dependent on the amount of education received in a child’s native country. This is long enough for children and schools to be labeled failures despite studies that show that once English learners become proficient in academic English, their test scores soar.

This year, I have been working on trying to get legislation passed that will allow for us to get a more accurate view of how our schools are performing. I am proposing that we don’t include the test scores for EL children until they are either English proficient or have been in the country for 5 years. This aligns with current research and only makes sense. Unless of course we are trying to use those scores to demonstrate failures instead of success.

I recently met with representatives from the Tennessee Department of Education on this matter and was very encouraged by their response. They recognize the need to differentiate and are open to finding methods to establish a policy that gives our EL students room to breathe, but still holds people accountable. Though as an aside here, the majority of teachers I know hold themselves to a greater level of accountability than the State could ever apply. That said, I’m encouraged by the DOE’s receptiveness. We are supposed to meet again after the first of the year, and I really appreciate their willingness to collaborate. It is evidence that Commissioner McQueen may be truly changing the culture at the Tennessee Department of Education.

As you are reading the debates of whether we should allow more children from Syria into the country or not, please keep in mind the children of the school where my own children attend. A school full of children who come from areas of the world where evil atrocities are being committed just like those in Syria. They come from areas that terrorist groups every bit as dangerous as ISIS exist and are every bit as active. Yet we welcome them and try to prepare them for a better world every day. Also keep in mind that we’ve had citizen’s of our own country walk into schools and commits heinous acts. So even if we were to deny entry to every foreign born child we would still be vulnerable.

We need to continue to pursue strong English Learner policies and provide safe learning places for all children. We have teachers and administrators in place that know these students needs and the best ways and means to address those needs. The experiences and knowledge of these administrators and teachers needs to be utilized to drive policy that will better enable our schools to serve all children.  I also encourage you to volunteer in a high needs schools, or in any school. It’s one social experience that will change your life.