in their own words

As crisis over Trump’s immigrant order mounts, what America’s teachers of refugee students want you to know

PHOTO: Charlie Nye / The Star
May Oo Mutraw, president of the Burmese Community Center for Education, works on spelling with six-year-old Ngae Reh in 2015.

President Donald Trump signed an executive order late Friday that blocked refugees from coming into the U.S. for 120 days and bars refugees from Syria from entering indefinitely.

The order — and subsequent detentions of refugees and other legal immigrants arriving in U.S. airports — prompted dramatic protests across the country and an emergency, late-night court ruling temporarily suspending part of Trump’s decree.

Among the many people who will spend the coming days trying to make sense of the shifting, uncertain terrain facing refugee families are the teachers who, in increasing numbers, have been working with their children.

Before and after Trump’s order this week, we asked several of those teachers to tell about their jobs, their students, and what has them worried right now. Here’s some of what they told us.

Louise El Yaafouri helps teachers learn the best ways to reach refugee education in Denver and Aurora, Colorado. She recently wrote this piece about teaching a student who had come to the U.S. from Iraq.

“I was just visiting some former students who are now in middle school, and they’re very cognizant of what’s going on. Families come in waves [to the U.S.], and many have family members that are still in that process of being approved. That creates is a lot of anxiety around, am I going to get to see my family again.

For our students, it’s not safe for them to go back. That saying, ‘Nobody leaves home unless home is the mouth of shark,’ that’s the situation. None of these families would volunteer to come to America. These aren’t families that that was their goal. None would have chosen to lose their homes, their culture, language, food.

I’ve been [around] refugee camps and watched this process of resettlement. It’s often long and terrifying ordeal. The U.S. is known for having a long and stringent process. And in the Denver community, those [countries targeted by Trump’s recent executive order] are seven populations we receive the most.

"Most of the families from Iraq are not refugees but asylees who volunteered to help the U.S. in their country."

A lot of students I get from those countries are not Muslim to begin with! And most of the families from Iraq are not refugees but asylees who volunteered to help the U.S. in their country.

We’re just starting to see our first Syrian kiddos here. [My former school] Bridge Academy got about five.

Our families, they have such a deep love for their home country. I’m an American and I love my country. This is different. It’s the idea of community and family so embedded in every aspect of life. To come to a place like the States … I feel, from my families, there’s a deep sense of isolation and detachment. The Syrian students tend to exhibit more symptoms of traumatic shock.

Syrians are also among the most literate people anywhere. Academically, it doesn’t take a long time for them to be ready to go. Even with disrupted schooling, the chance of them having literacy in their home language is really high. Kudos to those parents.

I work with the whole field of service workers in the refugee context. Working with people from the State Department, Lutheran Family Services, our African Community Center — having a network of people is crucial. We share all this information as it’s coming out and brainstorm and problem-solve. This community is really mobilized to dedicate ourselves to the people we serve. If it were me as an island, it would be too overwhelming.”

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Emily Ramirez teaches English as a second language in a diverse Dallas high school.

“We had an influx a few years ago from Myanmar, more recently we’ve received students from the Congo. Just in the past year, we’ve had a lot of placements from Syria and Iraq. Most of those students have refugee status. And then there’s a pretty sizable community from central America, a lot who are fleeing pretty violent situations.

"A lot of people complain that refugees put strain on schools. That is true"

I do have a few students [from Syria and Iraq] who are here, but they might still have a brother or an uncle they’re hoping they can come here. For one student, that might be changing — the likelihood of his brother being able to join his family.

We talk about ‘push’ and ‘pull’ factors. So, why did you leave? And, why did you choose America? For the descriptions of why people left, I got a pretty wide variety. A lot of people from Syria wrote, civil war, war, dying, dead people. When I asked, why America, why not Canada, France, Turkey? They say, I don’t know. We just ended up here.

The placements happen so fast. I had a class that reached 38 students speaking 17 languages. You just keep on welcoming people. A lot of people complain that refugees put strain on schools. That is true, and it can be difficult on schools. But it’s what I do, it’s what I love.”

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Tonya Powers is a long-term substitute teacher near Lubbock, Texas.

“I’m a speech and debate teacher. This is a fairly wealthy district, so a lot of this is about teaching them how to accept and communicate with people who are not like them. Lubbock is the home of Texas Tech, so there are graduate students especially who have children and go to school in the area. I’ve had a student whose family was in the process of applying for political asylum who has been trying to figure out how that would affect his chances at college. This area is built on cattle and farming, which means a lot of migrant workers.

Most days are pretty normal, but this last week has been rough on them. After the election, we had a horde of eighth-grade boys walking down the hallway chanting ‘Trump, Trump, Trump.’

I want people to know that these are just kids. Kids don’t make the choices they’re so afraid of. Even teenagers don’t. None of these kids I have ever been afraid of becoming terrorists.

It worries me when people talk about immigrants and refugees in broad strokes and have never even talked to one. If you could look your own child in the eye and say they didn’t deserve an education, you’d be heartless. And I think most people are better than that. But I think people don’t remember that immigrants and refugees are kids, too.”

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Carol Salva is a teacher and consultant working with newcomer students in Houston.

“In one of our more affluent areas, one of the apartment complexes struck a deal with Catholic Charities to resettle refugees there. Before [the nearby high school] could realize what was happening, they were flooded. There were over 30 kids who were coming from Somalia, Burundi, Egypt.

"For the last year or more, so many people in our community have been enriched."

They’re middle schoolers, full of hormones, there were all kinds of issues with behavior. We had refugees in in-school suspension every day. They kept loading them into this one class, and they had no good models for how you act in schools.

These kids are so mad by October. And in October, I went back into the classroom, and took over the class.

One of the teachers quit. But it all turned out really, really well. We watched tape of class, like football players. What did we do wrong? What did we do right?

The kids are learning more English every day, so you can explain things. You start talking about perseverance and grit. ‘You could help prove how fast refugees can learn.’

Most of the school is scared of them … then they started learning. And they bring perspective that you don’t have and I don’t have. Who wouldn’t want that for their child? I moved my kid to this school so he could be part of it.

I don’t mean to romanticize their hardships. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. But their perspective is huge and what we want for every classroom.

Their appreciation for education kept blowing us away over and over again. I don’t know if you know any middle schoolers, but their appreciation for education can be rather low. To have a student ask, why do we have a week off? And I would say, it’s spring break, it’s what we do. And he actually said, I don’t need a break. I’ve been on break my whole life.

I teach brand-new newcomers in high school now, and over half the class is from Syria. Their math and science is way beyond ours.

I’m deeply saddened. For the last year or more, so many people in our community have been enriched. You would want these people to be your neighbors.”

Do you teach refugee students? We’d love to hear from you. Tells us where you work and what you’d like other Americans to know about that experience at [email protected]

Every Student Succeeds Act

New federal rules are pushing Indiana to explore giving state tests in Spanish

PHOTO: Kelly Wilkinson / The Star
Kindergartners Ivania, left, and Jackie work on reading and writing with their teacher, Liz Amadio, at Enlace Academy.

Native Spanish-speakers could soon have an opportunity to take Indiana state tests in their first language.

Indiana education officials are proposing offering future state math and science tests in Spanish — and possibly other languages — as part of their plan to comply with new requirements of the Every Student Succeeds Act, which replaced No Child Left Behind in 2015.

Supporters of native language tests say, among other benefits, they can be far less jarring for children than sitting them in front of a test written in a language they can’t understand.

“The whole thinking is (English-learners) would do better if we’d give them access,” said Trish Morita-Mullaney, a researcher and professor at Purdue University who specializes in English language learning. “We don’t want you sitting blankly in front of an English test, we want you to at least have an opportunity to do well.”

The proposal says the translated tests could be available as early as spring of 2019, in time for the first administration of ILEARN, the test currently in the works to replace ISTEP.

While state officials said they’d focus on Spanish, the state’s ESSA plan says they anticipate adding three others to the mix. One option could be Burmese, which has a strong presence in four districts across the state, including some in Marion County.

About 72 percent of Indiana students learning English speak Spanish at home. Overall, Indiana’s 50,677 English-learners speak more than 270 languages, representing the second-fastest growing English-learner population in the entire country.

Morita-Mullaney said she is happy to see Indiana explore native language tests, but she hopes they take it slow and learn from of others. Some past mistakes include trying to test in too many languages (a costly, time-consuming endeavor) and trying to make the new tests happen before proper vetting and before schools collect input from students and families.

California, Texas, New York and Oregon have all, at some point, given native language tests, Morita-Mullaney said. And while it’s not a new idea, it’s still fairly uncharted territory. Based on a 2016 report from Education Week, fewer than 12 states test in languages other than English. Some states, like Florida, are trying to eschew the native language requirement altogether.

But one big piece missing from Indiana’s plan, Morita-Mullaney said, is how the state plans to ensure the test measures what the state intends it to measure — known in the test design world as “construct validity.”

Put another way, if a student is taking a math test in English, but they are fluent in Spanish, is the test measuring how well they know math, or how well they know English? That specific idea is part of the rationale for using native language tests, but there’s a related problem, Morita-Mullaney said: If a native Spanish-speaker is taught math in English, and tested in Spanish, is that also a fair and accurate test?

“If the original instruction was in English, what guarantee do we have that they actually understood it?” Morita-Mullaney said. “Are we testing the language, are we testing the content or both? That component is not in the (state plan).”

A way around this dilemma is through dual language instruction, where students are taught both in English and another language. But while those classes are growing in popularity, they make up a small minority of programs in schools, and many of them are designed to serve students who already know English, rather than students who need support in English and their home language.

Hopefully, Morita-Mullaney said, Indiana will try out native language tests first for small groups of students to make sure they truly provide an advantage to English-learners and function as intended. And ideally, she added, that would come with a renewed investment in bilingual education.

“It’s a wonderful effort, but I remain concerned that we have not examined construct validity,” she said. “But I don’t want construct validity to be used as an argument to not do it … there’s so much we don’t know, and there’s so many states that have done this the wrong way. We need to learn from their pitfalls.”

The move toward using native language tests is indicative of a larger trend of inclusivity in ESSA. Before, students learning English tended to be an afterthought in state education policy. Now, not only are native language tests on the table, but English-learners also have a larger piece of the state’s A-F grade formula.

“This is the first time (English-learners) have had a prominent place in our accountability system,” said Maryanne McMahon, an Indiana State Board of Education member and assistant superintendent in Avon.

There are also safeguards in place in the new rules to ensure even top-rated schools are taking care to educate all students. Going forward, schools could be be singled out for extra support from the state not just if they are rated a D or an F, but also if smaller groups of students, such as English-learners, are struggling.

“You can still have an A-district not meeting EL goals,” Morita-Mullaney said. “People think, ‘We’re an A, we’re good,’ but what it does is it masks disparities. So when you start to look more closely, you see that they’re an A-district, but gee, their English-learners are doing crummy.”

The state is on track to submit its ESSA plan to the federal government in September, and the state board is set to discuss the issues further next month.

Read more about Indiana’s ESSA journey here.

 

promoting choice

Betsy DeVos defends vouchers and slams AFT in her speech to conservatives

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos rallied a conservative crowd in Denver on Thursday, criticizing teachers unions and local protesters and defending private-school vouchers as a way to help disadvantaged students.

“Our opponents, the defenders of the status quo, only protest those capable of implementing real change,” DeVos told members of the American Legislative Exchange Council, an influential conservative group that helps shape legislative policy across the country. “You represent real change.”

DeVos delivered the keynote speech at the ALEC meeting, where she reiterated her support for local control of schools and school choice. Citing the conservative former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, she said education should be about individual students and families, not school systems.

“Lady Thatcher regretted that too many seem to blame all their problems on society. But, ‘who is society?’” DeVos asked, quoting Thatcher. “‘There is no such thing!’”

The American Federation of Teachers, she said, has exactly the opposite idea.

“Parents have seen that defenders of the status quo don’t have their kids’ interests at heart,” she said.

AFT President Randi Weingarten threw punches of her own Thursday, calling private school vouchers “only slightly more polite cousins of segregation” in a Washington, D.C. speech.

DeVos highlighted states that have introduced vouchers or new school-choice programs including North Carolina, Kentucky and Arizona. Indiana — home to the nation’s largest voucher program — also won praise.

Data from existing voucher programs may have sparked the one critical question DeVos faced, during a brief sit-down after her speech. Legislators want to know how to respond to complaints that voucher programs only help wealthy families, the moderator, an Arizona lawmaker, told DeVos.

In Indiana, for instance, vouchers are increasingly popular in wealthy school districts and among families whose students had not previously attended public school.

“I just dismiss that as a patently false argument,” DeVos said. “Wealthy people already have choice. They’re making choices every day, every year, by moving somewhere where they determine the schools are right for their children or by paying tuition if they haven’t moved somewhere.”

Earlier this year, DeVos criticized Denver as not offering enough school choice because Colorado does not have private school vouchers. Still, presenters at the conference Thursday introduced Denver to ALEC members — conservative legislators, business leaders and lobbyists — as “living proof” that charter schools and competition work.

A local Denver school board candidate, Tay Anderson, and state union leaders held a protest Wednesday ahead of DeVos’s speech. Attendees said they were concerned that ALEC’s efforts, and DeVos’s focus on vouchers and school choice, would hurt public schools.

DeVos didn’t make mention of Denver or Colorado in her speech Thursday, but she briefly referenced the protest.

“I consider the excitement a badge of honor, and so should you,” she said.