Fri March 8, 2013

Greeley-Evans District 6 Newcomer Program Essential For Refugee Youth

You used to be able to count the number of refugee children enrolled in Greeley-Evans District 6 schools on your hands. In 2007 there were 10.

Now? There are 335.

Each year the district spends $2.7 million on English Language Development, which includes the Newcomer program for refugee students. Eduardo Navidad, the assistant principal at Centennial Elementary School in Evans, notes many have never been inside a classroom or speak English.

“So our first step is to make them feel welcome,” says Navidad.

In his school, the Newcomer program not only teaches reading, writing, and arithmetic skills, it also teaches the basics. Something as simple as holding a pencil properly or opening a box of crayons. “We’re very strategic, we’re surgically strategic to know what are their needs, how can we meet them, and what are the resources that we need to make sure those needs are met,” said Navidad.

Teacher/student interaction is vital to the Newcomer program.
Teacher/student interaction is vital to the Newcomer program.
Credit Greeley-Evans School District 6

To enroll in the program at Centennial, a student is required to have been in the country for less than two years.

Katie Acosta, a Newcomer teacher says for refugee students just entering a school environment, it takes  awhile for them to interact and contribute. "When they come here they’re very much in a silent phase, just trying to receive all of this new information,” she says. “They’re just trying to figure it out. Trying to hear the language and hear all the new sounds in the language”

The Newcomer program places children into two settings. The first is an introductory class focused on the very basics, and a secondary class focused on bringing them up to speed academically and integrating them into the general population.  Placement is based on their grasp of English.

Navidad says it typically takes around a year or less for students to work through the two classes at Centennial. After that, they're required to pass standardized tests just like every other student.

“We try to push them to meet their grade level standards, but we also understand that there are some 

"They're just trying to figure it out. Trying to hear the language and hear all the new sounds in the language."

barriers that they would have to overcome first,” says Navidad. “And that’s gaining an understanding of the language, how to write our language which is very different then what they’re used to.”

That has proven to be a frustrating barrier for many students.

It’s why Greeley-Evans School District 6 also places an emphasis on parental interaction, teaching parents that they have a responsibility for their child’s education.

To help strengthen parent/teacher relationships, the district sponsors a Multicultural Mothers Group for parents of refugees, founded by Wia Wia Nay, a refugee herself. “We want them to be comfortable and welcome coming to the school so we started the small group,” says Nay.

For many refugees, the idea of sending their child to school is completely foreign. For others it’s even stranger, culturally, interacting with a child’s teacher.

According to the group Bridging Refugee Youth & Children’s Services (funded by the Federal Office of Refugee Resettlement), parents in many countries rarely visit their children’s school or talk with teachers because doing so would be considered taboo.

That makes it very hard for schools in the U.S. to develop a solid relationship between teachers and parents.

Credit Nathan Heffel / KUNC

Nay says making parents feel welcome inside the school goes a long way in creating a path for better parent /teacher interactions. “We would like them to feel like America way.”

Nearly 20 parents have been part of the mothers group.

The district believes participation in school-based initiatives like the Newcomer program and Multicultural Mothers Group will continue to grow.  That’s almost wholly dependent on whether or not employers like JBS USA continue to hire refugees to work at area meat packing plants.

The companies don't share their hiring information with the district, so officials say they have little ability to predict any fluctuation in refugee student numbers, or demand for the programs, from year to year.