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Trauma And Transitions: How San Diego Schools Grapple With Educating Refugees

August 28, 2017 1:27 p.m.

Trauma And Transitions: How San Diego Schools Grapple With Educating Refugees


Megan Wood, multimedia journalist, inewsource

Related Story: Trauma And Transitions: How San Diego Schools Grapple With Educating Refugees


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

This is KPBS Midday Edition. I am Maureen Cavanaugh. Since 1975, more than 85,000 refugees have been relocated to San Diego County. Over the years, one thing has remained constant. Refugee parents what kids to receive a good education and make a better life for themselves in America. What kind of education you get depends on which school district a wind up in. Megan Wood explains.

Reporter: Emerald middle school began the last school year with one class dedicated to refugee students. By April, it had four. This district and rolled 1862 newcomers last year. These are students who have a birth country other than the U.S.. Most are refugees.

I want everyone to get out your language lab.

David works with the students.

I read aloud with them. We are doing stuff cooperatively. We sit on the floor and we work together.

To get students familiar with how school works, they spend the day with one teacher, except for PNA. The English-speaking counterparts have teachers.

For some students who have not been able to go to school, have missed school because of being a refugee, I want to give them maybe a piece of the childhood that they missed.

Research shows students who come to the yes have large gaps in the education. That is one of the main reasons why they integrate students slowly into regular classes. San Diego used teach students that way also until last year. Now they get refugees into regular classes from the start. Sandra explains why.

We do not have to wait for them to learn spoken English before we can introduce content and knowledge and language.

Before the school year, sand -- they place refugee students in self-contained classrooms called new arrival centers. The district noticed students were not doing well as they had hoped.

When we looked at the data, we noticed that some kids were graduating but not all.

At some schools, fewer than 50% of newcomers graduated in four years because the new arrival centers students were not earning credits to satisfy graduation requirements. Last year, they rebranded the program. New arrival centers became international centers. Instead of spending the day with one teacher, students take one class for English learners and then attend regular classes with non-refugee students.

It is treating them as any other ninth grader as they come to the high schools and we give them options so they can graduate in four years.

Not everybody likes the accelerated schedule including Chris Larson.

Some of the students who came with perhaps a much stronger educational foundation, they were ready to move into mainstream classes sooner. Some students had very little formal education.

One of the students is Tom. In 2009, he was 15 and enrolled in school for the first time

The first year was hard because when I came, I had zero English. None.

It took them five years to graduate.

If it was not for that program, I do not think I was going to be here but yes.

Chris Larson works with the district and hopes to improving the international centers.

It is not a one-size-fits-all. I think we need to be smart about providing what each newcomer student needs.

Despite the concerns, district officials say students are doing better under the new program. Data provided show 66% of all newcomer students enrolled in a regular math class last year passed.

Slowing down the curriculum in my opinion is not the answer. Can we improve the support of the students that they are getting? Yes.

I am Megan Wood.

That was a collaboration between the investigative reporting workshop at American University. And a independently funded partner of KPBS. Megan spoke with Andrew Bowen for the podcast series, San Diego stories, deep die. Andrew asked Megan about some teachers additional concerns about the district new system that put refugees in classes like math or science be or they fully learn English, they may leave some behind. Here is part of the podcast.

Can students earn credits if they do not speak English? If they are in a math class and they are learning math in English but they are not proficient yet can they earn credit in a class ?

They can. What the district has are the language coaches who go to classes with refugee students to follow them and shatter them and help them get through the regular classes. The issue is for every school, there is one language coach. At Crawford high school, there were 72 newcomer students and one language coach.

I know you heard reports of students that were skipping class because they felt like they were overwhelmed tell me about that

We do not have data for that because it just started. Anecdotally, we have heard from students that students do not feel welcomed and a lot of them tend to skip class. This brings up concerns with the teachers that we talk to. They think it is more likely that the students will drop out. If they drop out, life will be harder for them and they will not be able to get the jobs they want.

What does the school district say in response to the criticism ?

They said it is open to change. They have a committee called the psych committee and students -- they are working with past teachers and current teachers, working on how to better improve the international centers.

Some of the students were happy with the old system before the district changed and started putting kids into more difficult classes. They were happy with it even though it took them more than four years to graduate high school. You can stay at a high school until you are 21. Why is there a focus on this four year graduation. He ?

After four or five years, students are likely to drop out and she wants to get them prepared to move on to a career and be successful.

Let's move on to the third school that you looked at. The city Heights prep charter school. What percentage of the students are refugees compared to the San Diego unified district ?

It is more. It is two thirds of the student population.

What does a class look like for them?

It is like a hybrid between San Diego unified and Cohen Valley. They do not have the centers. They do not have classes for new arrivals. Everybody is put together. They have a period dedicated to learning English. Other than that, they are learning together.

How did they get founded and was the purpose to focus on refugees ?

It was founded by the director. It is on the property of a church. It is interesting. It is a tall tower. She decided to open the school after she spoke with parents who said they wanted more options. I do not think it was intended to be a school for so many refugees but you know, the neighbor should she is in, it is predominantly a refugee neighborhood. There is lots of apartments. Everyone is very close.

The school, the officials actually go to two-door sometimes trying to sign people up for charter schools. What did the school officials have to say about the question I asked for, the idea of segregating our data wising these children into refugee classrooms or a special refugee school?

I think it is hard to find new kids because a lot of kids want to go into district high school, to a big school where they can make lots of friends and play sports. It turns out that they get brothers and sisters and cousins and family members. That is how they attract refugee students. I went to -- door to door and Meriden who does the recruiting, she would knock on doors and say do you know anybody who is in sixth grade? They did not get there this year but that is how they do the recruiting.

Is there academic research with these models, is there data or research that can speak to which one is the most effective ?

There is not. I do not think anyone knows the real solution. I think it is something that people have to keep adapting to.

Sandra said if there was a solution out there, they would be doing it.

We are facing a complex situation. There is no easy answer. We work with a doctor from UCLA. She came through our international center. She observed what was going on. She did say, this is rocket science. It is. It is not something that is easily -- I solution is not out there.

There has been study showing that bilingual education is a good way to integrate newcomer students into a classroom and help them learn effectively. Is there a possibility of these classes turning into bilingual classrooms ?

Maybe in the future but at this point, I think the funding is not there. With so many languages at the schools, at San Diego unified, it is dozens of languages. For them to separate students into different classes based on that, that might be tough.

The schools do not quite have enough time to show graduation rates, right? It is early to tell even in these specific examples how good of a job they are doing.

Right. We will continue to follow up expect the influx of refugees into the United States is starting to slow under the Trump administration. We have heard about the executive order he signed which will go before the Supreme Court. Are the programs viewed as temporary? Is very a concern I hope that the flow of refugees is going to slow down a bit ?

I do not think so. People are embracing it and the programs are here to stick around. San Diego unified has the center for 10 years. This will not go away.

You heard Andrew Bowen and Megan Wood talking as part of the podcast series, San Diego stories, deep dive. You can hear more of the conversation by scrapping -- subscribing to .