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For young newcomers, school offers a stepping stone to life in America

November 19, 2015 at 6:25 PM EST
Around the nation, cities that take in refugees face the challenge of how to educate young people who speak little or no English. The NewsHour’s April Brown visits Houston, now the most diverse city in the U.S., where Las Americas Newcomer School teaches both the ABCs and the basics of life in a new country.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: As we mentioned earlier in the program, there’s an ongoing debate over whether the U.S. should accept Syrian refugees following the attacks in Paris.

Many American cities already regularly take in refugees, not just from Syria, but from around the world. One of the major challenges those cities face is how to educate the children, who typically speak little or no English.

April Brown visited one school in Houston, Texas, taking on that challenge.

The report is part of our American Graduate series, a public media initiative funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

APRIL BROWN: This 12-year old boy is one of thousands of children who’ve made the dangerous journey from Latin America in search of a brighter future.

Jose, who asked us not to use his real name, came to Houston with his brother and aunt from El Salvador, a country with one of the highest murder rates in the world.

Can you tell me what happened in your city, why you left?

JOSE, Student: Because there is too much guns, and then they can kill you.

APRIL BROWN: Jose, who spoke no English when he arrived, is just one of a growing number of immigrant and refugee students finding a new home in Houston. The city has become increasingly attractive to foreigners fleeing their homelands.

ALI AL SUDANI, Interfaith Ministries For Greater Houston: The reasons why Houston is a top destination for refugees is affordable cost of living, vibrant economy, welcoming environment, big support from the local communities and from the faith communities.

APRIL BROWN: Ali Al Sudani is head of refugee services at Interfaith Ministries, a resettlement organization that helps newcomers with everything from housing and job training to finding schools for their children.

Al Sudani is a refugee himself who came to the U.S. from Iraq three years ago after serving as a military translator. For immigrant and refugee students, he often recommends the Las Americas Newcomer School, where Jose enrolled in August.

MARIE MORENO, Principal, Las Americas Newcomer School: We have kids from all over the world, up to 32 countries at times. We have kids from Cuba. We have kids from Afghanistan, Iraq. We have kids from the Congo.

APRIL BROWN: Marie Moreno is the principal of Las Americas. Her students speak nearly 30 languages, but English is one that they’re all just beginning to learn. And it’s not just a new language that’s a challenge.

MARIE MORENO: Coming in with not knowing the language, not knowing the culture, it just takes them at least a year or two just to kind of acclimate, kind of understand what’s going on, understand the language, how does this all work, this education in America work?

And so it just provides them that stepping-stone.

APRIL BROWN: That stepping-stone is only provided to students who have lived in the U.S. for less than one year and have very limited or no English skills. Alongside learning the ABCs, some are also introduced to the basics of living in a Western society.

MARIE MORENO: They don’t know how to hold a pencil or sit down in a chair. They don’t understand it’s OK to flush toilet paper in the toilet.

DENA REHAL, Instructional Specialist, Las Americas Newcomer School: These students show up from refugee camps. They show up from crossing the border alone, from reuniting with their parents after seven years.

APRIL BROWN: Dena Rehal is an instructional support specialist at Las Americas who helps coach teachers. This year, most are new to the school, just like the nontraditional students in their classrooms.

DENA REHAL: These students are coming from backgrounds that include no schooling, can include moving repeatedly, where their schooling is interrupted.

So, with teachers, we really have to lay the foundation that this is not a student who may necessarily perform at the academic level that they are capable of.

APRIL BROWN: When children first enroll at Las Americas, they take literacy tests and are then placed in classrooms grouped by English proficiency, rather than grade-level; 14-year-old Luwam and 11-year-old Gaym are going through the process, having just arrived in Houston as refugees from Eritrea, considered by many to be Africa’s most repressive country.

STUDENT: In my school, one teacher of English.

APRIL BROWN: Las Americas is a public school in a district where roughly 30 percent of all students were designated as limited-English-proficient last year.

The school’s funding is similar to that of any public school in Houston, serving low-income families and English language learners. But it has additional resources to meet the needs of its students.

MARIE MORENO: These are all math terms both in English and Swahili.

APRIL BROWN: Moreno has invested in dictionaries and other materials that translate words from English to the child’s native tongue and vice versa. And she makes sure everyone respects where students have come from.

During a summer trip to Guatemala, she picked up a book written in Ki’che’, a Mayan language that Las Americas student Moises Tumax had learned, along with Spanish, growing up there.

At first, he couldn’t believe she had found it.

MOISES TUMAX, Student (through interpreter): It’s incredible to see it here, in the United States. In Guatemala, you can find them, not in any store, but in a bookshop.

APRIL BROWN: With so many languages spoken at the school, communication is often a challenge. So to help bridge that gap, Moreno has been trying new forms of technology. Recently, when two students who spoke no English got into an argument, she used a translation app on her phone to find out the cause.

MARIE MORENO: Fight. And so the kid would say, ah. And then he would speak in his language, and it would pick it up. And then it basically says it in Arabic, and then I can read it in English.

APRIL BROWN: Sometimes, disputes and other outbursts are a sign of the deep emotional issues many students arrive with.

Sarah Howell leads a small team of social workers at Las Americas. She says nearly all of the children here have experienced some form of trauma that can affect their daily lives.

SARAH HOWELL, Social Worker, Las Americas Newcomer School: It’s just everything to, I want to hurt myself, I can’t go on, to, well, it’s really hard, I’m sad, but I will be OK.

I’m seeing kids who don’t know who they are. Our refugee kids may not have ever had an identity. Our Central American kids are angry about their identity a lot of time, about, you know, I’m angry that I had to leave my home, I’m angry that my home wasn’t safe.

APRIL BROWN: To make sure students are staying on the right track, principal Moreno often meets with parents.

MARIE MORENO: I talked to you about his English, OK, his English. You can sit down.

APRIL BROWN: She encourages them to come to the school if they have questions, need social services or even clothing for their families. As part of the effort to ease the transition into American culture and education, students have lunch and P.E. with students from the public school next door.

That also complies with federal requirements that English-language learners are integrated into traditional classes as quickly as possible, which is one reason most students stay at Las Americas for only a year.

Principal Moreno knows some of her students are undocumented and admits that immigration is a polarizing issue, but it’s not one she wades into. She says it’s her job to focus on the kids and families that continue to show up at the school.

MARIE MORENO: Now, you and I both know that there’s a lot of families and a lot people in this country that depend on the government for a lot of things and aren’t looking for ways of improving.

And so why breed more families like that, when we can educate families that want to learn English, so that they can become our next electricians or our next doctors?

APRIL BROWN: Moreno is already preparing for a new influx of students, as more young refugees are expected to be resettled in Houston in the coming months.

For the PBS NewsHour, I’m April Brown in Houston.

PBS NewsHour education coverage is part of American Graduate: Let’s Make it Happen, a public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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