A California School District Meets the Challenge of Changing Refugee Policies

22 Nov 2017 by Patricia Nyhan

Teacher Christopher Baughman works with newcomer students at Emerald STEAM Magnet Middle School. (Megan Wood/inewsource, 8/28/17)

As immigration policies see-saw, refugee children are arriving at schools across America in unpredictable numbers, forcing educators to scramble to meet their needs. In the Cajon Valley Union School District in a San Diego suburb, one in five students is a refugee – one of the highest numbers in the country. Last year, 897 students arrived under President Obama’s refugee resettlement policy’s higher quota, double the number from the year before. The district ran out of seats in classrooms and had to hire new teachers.

“It’s a challenge. We don’t get any information about it when it happens,” says Eyal Bergman, head of the district’s family and community outreach. Adding to the challenge is the emotional stress travel ban turmoil and anti-immigrant rhetoric can cause refugee families once they arrive. The district has embraced these challenges by creating a robust newcomers program involving teacher training, parent involvement and mental health counseling.

Staff Development

As refugees arrive, Bergman makes student placements among the district’s 26 schools and works with them on lesson content, English instruction in the classroom, and student assessment. Training includes issues of cultural sensitivity, trauma, and parent-school involvement, for instance making home visits to overcome communication breakdowns between home and school.

“Teacher training programs don’t include anything about family engagement. Yet the research is unequivocal that the more you build partnerships with parents, the more you can amplify kids’ success,” says Bergman.

Due to the wave of new arrivals last year, eleven “newcomer teachers” were added across Cajon Valley schools to teach students who aren’t ready to be mainstreamed.

Parent Involvement

Bergman also oversees an outreach program for refugee parents, working with paid community liaisons who speak some of the families' native languages: Arabic, Farsi, Pashto, Swahili, or Spanish. They meet one on one with newcomer parents soon after their arrival to discuss their kids’ academic backgrounds and hopes and dreams for them. They then introduce them to school staff, and follow up with home visits. Parents can attend classes on such things as reading to their child.

Mental Health Counseling

Since many refugee students arrive with mental health issues, including PTSD, the district provides training on trauma for students and teachers. It has also hired four counselors devoted to working with children affected by trauma.

Counselors and teachers sensitized to mental health issues have helped students and their parents deal with fears for their families back home as refugee policies tighten. During the presidential campaign last year, Cajon Valley responded to the anxiety aroused by anti-immigrant rhetoric by holding private meetings with families and classes for parents. Teachers and principals have bought into the newcomers program – one of the keys to its success, says Bergman. Another is that Bergman’s team listened to the community about what they wanted, and put in place what they knew would help achieve it, he says:

“Refugees come here seeking a better life for their kids. They know that the American dream is wrapped up in the schools.”

Superintendent David Miyashiro, school district board member Tamara Otero, and Eyal Bergman of the Cajon Valley Union School District meet with California Rep. Susan Davis at her office in Washington, D.C.

A third reason for Cajon Valley’s success is its ongoing advocacy for resources. Bergman, whose background is in community organizing, is constantly advocating within his district for resources. Last April, the district successfully lobbied state lawmakers for a $10 million one-time funding award for districts with high numbers of refugees. In January, Bergman joined the district’s superintendent and a school board member for a trip to Washington, DC, as part of the National School Board Association’s annual gathering to raise awareness about their program and lobby their California delegation for additional federal funds.

“We’ve shown that we do good work. We invested a lot of funds in evaluation,” he says.

Do schools in your local district have programs like this? Please share on our Facebook page. Would you like to help start a newcomer program? Google the Cajon Valley Union School District to find numerous media accounts of this three-year-old model program. Take Eyal Bergman’s advice: “Do strong work and make yourself indispensable to key stakeholders.”