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The Refugee Story, Part 3: Educating Refugee Children

Eileen Pace
TPR News
It's back to basics for newcomer children who are learning to speak, read, and write English in the 3rd, 4th and 5th grades.

Of the more than 10,000 refugees living in San Antonio, 80 percent are women and children and the high influx of students presents unique challenges for educators.

In the third part of her series, "The Refugee Story: Building New Lives," TPR’s Eileen Pace examines the dynamics of teaching a large population of students who arrive in the U.S. with diverse languages and skills.

“Yes, Barack will do that last one,” Colonies North Elementary teacher Sara Aguirre tells her students as she points to a classroom exercise on nouns and verbs.

Aguirre is an experienced teacher. She’s taught other teachers and students in Africa as part of her studies at UTSA. But teaching her Colonies North class of newcomers -- a class of children of vastly different life experiences, different ages and mixed languages -- took some getting used to.

"This is VERY different," Aguirre said. "I would have to say, yes, I think every teacher on our team that’s a newcomer teacher thought the first week was shocking. But what I will say is that it's amazing how much they want to learn. These kids want to come to school. I get in trouble with them if I don't give them homework. They are all very eager to learn."

The number of refugees jumped about tenfold in 2004 because of the war in Iraq. District 8 City Councilman Ron Nirenberg says the approximately 800 refugees coming in each year now settle on San Antonio's Northwest Side.

"The Northside Independent School District has recently crossed the 100,000 student mark this past year," Nirenberg says. "They have over 100,000 students enrolled in their schools. And their board estimated that the refugee population accounts for one percent. So over 1,000 students who are from war-torn countries, with new arrivals coming in every week."

"I guess the biggest issue is they come in with not only no English, but very little formal schooling or mastery of their own language," said Dr. Linda Mora, deputy superintendent for curriculum & instruction.

She said the concentration of the varied population offers a challenge to NISD.

Credit Eileen Pace / TPR News
TPR News
Newcomer class grades 3-5 at Colonies North Elementary School. The school hosts students from 34 different countries.

"They speak many different languages --Arabic, Nepali, Vietnamese, Farsi, Filipino, Burmese, Urdu -- so we have a smorgasbord of different languages," she said.

High school students have a limited time to learn English before they are required to take the STAAR exams. Mora said State Sen.Leticia Van De Putte, D-San Antonio, and State Rep. Mike Villarreal, D-San Antonio, worked to get an exception for incoming foreign refugee students to give them up to five years to pass the test.

In addition, Mora says teachers often must teach basic life skills to students who had perhaps never set foot in a classroom or who have lived without basic necessities.

"Some of these that have come from war-torn countries may have been ‘in the wild,’ so to speak. And some of our teachers have to teach them how to use the bathroom, how to eat with a fork or how to eat a sandwich," Mora says.

"Number one, I’ll say we weren’t prepared," says Colonies North Principal Kris Cotton. "We recently had a parade of nations at the beginning of October. Including the United States and including Mexico, we had 34 countries represented on our campus."

Now, Cotton says, the teachers have it figured out.

"We had a fourth-grade teacher who we had to completely transform her classroom. So going back to identifying letters, the sounds of letters, to be able to put that together to make words. And at the same time, we were responsible for meeting the fourth-grade curriculum, by law," Cotton said.

In an effort to bring the efforts of community providers together, Nirenberg recently held a "refugee summit" to address the dynamics of the immigrants’ needs -- even down to details like riding a bus.

That’s in the next part of our series, "The Refugee Story: Building New Lives".

Eileen Pace is a veteran radio and print journalist with a long history of investigative and feature reporting in San Antonio and Houston, earning more than 50 awards for investigative reporting, documentaries, long-form series, features, sports stories, outstanding anchoring and best use of sound.