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Tutoring Refugee Students And Their Parents

Aired 11/28/12 on KPBS News.

The International Rescue Committee expands education programs with a grant from the San Diego Women's Foundation.

— The school day was over at Marshall Elementary in City Heights and the campus was quiet, except for the clamor coming from about two dozen students filling one of the portable trailers at the far back corner of campus.

Colleen Krause, a program manager for the International Rescue Committee, looks around the room for a student to call on during one of the Daily after school tutoring sessions at Marshall Elementary School, Oct. 29, 2012.

The students are part of a new after school tutoring program. They’ve all come to San Diego from refugee camps around the world, or are the children of refugees. Some come from Thailand, others from Kenya. But wherever they’re from, many agree with Christ Dah and Binti Muya about why they like coming to this classroom, even on unseasonably warm fall days like this one, when the room is warm and stuffy.

“Because sometimes when you need help, your friend helps you and right here, too, the teacher helps you,” Dah said.

“It’s different because during regular school you have to do you stuff like, when you’re taking a test they don’t help you, you just have to do it yourself. Here they help you and stuff like that,” said Muya.

Fourth grader Paw Leh said aside from the help with homework, she looks forward to after school tutoring because it’s more comfortable than her normal classroom.

“Because we don’t know how to speak English, we don’t know people,” she said of the normal school day.

Colleen Krause runs the after school program for the International Rescue Committee. She said the program started because refugee students are more likely to need this kind of one-on-one attention.

“When they enter the country, they are often placed according to their age. So they may be entering fifth grade, but have a much lower skill level,” she said.

But they need more help finishing their homework.

“The children don’t get help at home necessarily from their parents because they’re English-language learners themselves," Krause said. "So, just every bit we can help the child to succeed. By giving them extra time reading out loud. Extra time learning how to sound out words and put those words together and then critically think about the ideas that they’re seeing in a story or things that are happening to them on a daily basis.”

The IRC has supported families with preschool-aged and younger children with English as a Second Language, parenting and other life skills classes since 1995. But this year a grant from The San Diego Women’s Foundation gave them the opportunity to expand to families with older children.

How involved parents are in their children's education is widely accepted as a predictor of how well those children will do in school. Helping refugee parents have meaningful involvement in their children's classrooms is another goal of the new program.

Say Mu Paw is refugee from Burma. She came to San Diego from a refugee camp in Thailand. Two of her four children attend Marshall and she is getting coaching from IRC in how to get more involved in her children’s education at home and at school.

“I really, really want to learn. So right now I’m learning about how to read to the kids, to the children and how to write, what to do with the homework,” she said.

She’s also learning about American-style parenting.

“If they’re not listening, if they’re not following the rules, we have to put them in time out," she said, pausing to remember the term. "No spanking. In Thailand, we have spanking sometimes, so it’s different here.”

Paw will eventually become a trainer herself.

“She’s been learning a lot of the terminology and then how to make a difference in her children’s education," Krause said. "Then we’re going to take Say Mu Paw and she’s going to help train the other parents. We’re hoping this will be a more culturally-sensitive approach where she gets to try it on and then she gets to teach others, ‘OK, this is what worked for me.’”

That’s why Paw wanted to be part of getting the program started.

“Because I wanted to help the parents of the future," she said. "If I understand English very well and about writing, then I want to teach my friends."

She has already started helping other parents communicate with their students’ teachers and fill out paperwork.

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