'Newcomer' Schools Teach Refugee Children Skills to Succeed in US

10 December, 2019

International flags hang outside Valencia Newcomer School in Phoenix, Arizona. The school offers programs for more than 200 children from around the world. They are learning English skills and classroom customs that they need to succeed in the United States.

When each school year begins, the refugee and immigrant children often do not know some rules. Some children get frightened by a whistle or an aircraft flying above. Such sounds might remind them of conflict back in their homeland.

But the young students' fears disappear over time, says Valencia Principal Lynette Faulkner. She calls the school the children's "safe place." Soon, the students learn to stand in line and raise their hands. As they learn English, they make friends across cultures.

Since the autumn of 2018, the public school has welcomed students from countries including Myanmar, Eritrea, Indonesia, Afghanistan and Cuba. The boys and girls get an extra year of attention at Valencia before moving on to more traditional schools. The students come from 21 nations and speak 15 languages.

From left to right, students Vania Lopez Lopez, Genesis Yol, Kediga Ahmed, Mussa Ahmed, and Kiza Lulaca, eat lunch at Valencia Newcomer School Thursday, Oct. 17, 2019, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
From left to right, students Vania Lopez Lopez, Genesis Yol, Kediga Ahmed, Mussa Ahmed, and Kiza Lulaca, eat lunch at Valencia Newcomer School Thursday, Oct. 17, 2019, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

Valencia is among a few U.S. public schools helping some of the thousands of refugee children who arrive in the country each year. The schools are not necessarily in cities with more refugees. Instead, they are in areas where local education officials took steps to create them. Similar schools are in Texas, Indiana, Rhode Island and North Carolina.

Proposal to limit refugees

The administration of President Donald Trump has proposed limiting the number of refugees admitted each year to 18,000. The current number is 30,000. It is already much lower than the refugee limit during the presidency of Barack Obama.

Arizona ranks eighth among the 50 states for refugee resettlement. Its numbers dropped sharply, from 4,110 people in fiscal year 2016 to 998 people in 2018. But it did rise to 1,216 for the 12-month period that ended on September 30. About half are children.

"There may be less, but they're still coming," said Kristine Jones, a teacher at the Valencia Newcomer School.

It is unclear if the lower limit on refugees will affect the financial support schools get from the Office of Refugee Resettlement's Refugee School Impact Program.

In 2018, the Arizona Department of Economic Security gave out about $635,000 to help 1,026 school-age refugees across the state. The money was used to get those students things like school supplies and language interpreters.

Ten-year-old Rebecca Kawa is the daughter of Congolese refugees. She did not learn English at the refugee camp in Uganda where she was born. But after only two months as a student at Valencia, she no longer needed an interpreter.

Kawa said, "I like this school because they teach you English, and you learn it fast."

Memories of violence

There are often difficulties for children who lived in refugee camps or witnessed violence. Refugee and other immigrant children who lose a home or parent can suffer from what child development experts call "toxic stress." They use this term to describe the body's reaction to long-term difficulties, said Sarah Smith. She is senior director of education for the nonprofit International Rescue Committee.

"Infants might cry for long periods of time," Smith said. "Children in school might have a hard time concentrating."

Newcomer school teachers and social workers aim to make sure children get the social and emotional time they need to talk through feelings and make friends. Valencia social worker Michelle Frias said that over the past year, she has referred about 10 students to mental health specialists for extra care.

At Valencia, the day starts with teachers welcoming students as they get off the buses.

Samuel Lavi, a teaching assistant from Congo, is the first to welcome each student. "My most important role is to make sure the students get what they're supposed to get," he said.

Inside the classrooms, brightly colored letters cover the walls. Some groups of children face each other at round tables as they listen to an adult trained to teach English to non-native speakers. The students also have classes in mathematics, art, music and physical education.

Faulkner, the Valencia principal, said her school's district looked into newcomer programs after seeing new arrivals struggle to meet state English language standards.

So, Faulkner visited Las Americas newcomer school in Houston, Texas. Las Americas has about 400 students in grades four through eight. They come from over 30 countries and speak 29 languages, said the school principal Marie Moreno.

"We wanted to provide them a space where they can get grounded, whenever they feel traumatized or whenever they remember something from the past," she said.

Moreno added, "We try to support them by helping them understand where they came from and where we want them to go."

I'm Ashley Thompson. And I'm Anne Ball.

The Associated Press reported this story. Ashley Thompson adapted it for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.


Words in This Story

remind - v. to make (someone) think about something again

principal - n. the person in charge of a public school

fiscal - adj. of or relating to money and especially to the money a government, business, or organization earns, spends, and owes

interpreter - n. a person who translates the words that someone is speaking into a different language

infant - n. a very young child

concentrate - v. to give your attention to the thing you are doing, reading, etc.

refer - v. to send (someone or something) to a particular person or place for treatment, help, advice, etc.

role - n. a part that someone or something has in a particular activity or situation

grade - n. a level of study that is completed by a student during one year

traumatize - v. to cause (someone) to become very upset in a way that often leads to serious emotional problems : to cause (someone) to suffer emotional trauma