Newcomer School Readiness Program: Summer school has never been this fun!
When young refugees arrive in the Seattle area, there is little time to adjust before they must enter the public school system for the first time. The new students may know little English, and understand few, if any, of the classroom norms that other students take for granted. The IRC's Newcomer School Readiness Program (NSRP) aims to ease this transition by teaching refugees in Tukwila, Washington basic English and introducing them to school structure in a gradual, supportive way over the summer before classes begin. The free program, however, serves as more much than that: it warmly welcomes the young students into their new country, gives them chances to make new friends, and connects them with adult mentors who truly care about their success.
This year’s program was held at Foster High School, which many of the older refugee students will attend come Fall. While it is impossible to fully prepare the students for immersion into U.S. public schools in a single summer, the program is a rare chance to receive the full attention of teachers who understand where the students are coming from and the difficult circumstances they are facing. Many of the participants arrived in the U.S. within only a few weeks of joining the program, making it an important time to establish roots and make new beginnings. The NSRP is not only these students’ first American school experience, but also their first time belonging to a group in their new country. It means a lot.
NSRP Coordinator, Justin Maggart, and fellow classroom instructor, Caroline Morgan, use a multidiscipline approach to English language learning – the students sing songs, play games and work on art projects in addition to basic grammar and writing lessons. Mr. Maggart explains, “Songs are great language teachers because they open the heart and memory to new words, rhythms, phrases, ideas and cultural themes.” In addition to the American folk songs performed in class, many of the Nepali students sing songs from home to themselves - gorgeous melodies coming from young kids.
Most of the children wear American clothing including Michael Jackson or ACDC t-shirts, button down formalwear, blue jeans, or soccer jerseys. Traces of home still shine, however. A young girl wears a large circle of white makeup on each cheek – a traditional Burmese cosmetic derived from water and bark called Thanakha. Her round face lights up when she laughs, displaying a large gap where her adult teeth have not yet grown in. Another student - a teenage boy from Eritrea - gyrates his shoulders in a jerky, playful fashion, showing off his dance skills. A funnyman, he always tries to make the group laugh while still taking his academics seriously. Every day after school he heads to the library to continue working on his English language skills.
Each morning, a group of dedicated interns travel to each child’s apartment to pick them up for school. At the beginning of the program, siblings huddled together and avoided talking with their classmates. Then, toward the end of the summer, the students knew the morning route better than the interns and eagerly knocked on each other’s doors. Instructor Justin Maggart describes the strong bonds quickly formed among the students: “With school within walking distance for most students, our program was an extension of very supportive, village-like communities of Bhutanese Nepali and Burmese Chin refugees in Tukwila. I was touched to see how much our students reached out to one another to help each other feel connected and welcomed into the group.” The older students watch out for the younger ones, making sure they get up in the morning, behave themselves and do not run across the street. Students of the same nationality form an even stronger link, with older Burmese refugees helping younger ones do their homework, holding their hand and comforting them when they get upset. The relationship is like that of two siblings, even though the students met each other for the first time this summer. With all the challenges and changes they are undergoing, the kids recognize the need to support each other.
The program began in July with seven devoted students, and gradually grew to fifty-five by summer’s end. A second classroom was added to address the increase in numbers, with the younger and older students taught separately. One of the original students, a seventeen-year-old Iranian refugee, hopes to one day become an engineer. He studied some English back home because the language was “good for business,” he says, and speaks frequently about building up his academic resume for college applications. His older sister, on the other hand, is in a different position. She had been attending college-level classes in Iran but now faces the challenge of taking classes taught in English, a language totally new to her. At the beginning of the summer, she knew only a few English words and relied on her brother for translation; now, at the program’s end, she has the confidence and the ability to participate in class and even guide the younger students. She must decide next year whether to enter high school as a relatively older student or to move on and learn English on her own.
The program is primarily comprised of younger students, many of whom know more English than their older counterparts. One such student - a tough, young Bhutanese boy – is a leader among his friends. He struts to school every morning wearing collared, button-down shirts with soccer shorts and cleats, a clothing combination no one dares question. Despite his no-nonsense demeanor, he looks forward to school and hums the class songs as he walks from his apartment to the main building. With already a basic knowledge of English, he excels in the classroom. For students like him, the NSRP provides the push in the right direction that they need to succeed academically.
The IRC’s Newcomer School Readiness Program was established in 2008 with six students. It has grown and thrived each year since. With all the cultural and linguistic challenges that American school demands, supporting these new students during their first summer in the U.S. is invaluable. Pairing devoted teachers and interns with determined students who have lots to learn makes for an exciting, stimulating program. Summer school has never been this fun!
Click here to check out some fabulous photos from this year's program!
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