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April 1, 2009
Vol. 66
No. 7

Making Refugee Students Welcome

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"Within five minutes of the bell ringing, classrooms were running smoothly. The kids knew exactly what the expectations were. They came into the classrooms ready to learn."
Loren Cross, a 3rd grade teacher at William Howard Taft Elementary School in Boise, Idaho, marveled at how well the 58 students who'd recently immigrated from many different countries and who spoke 14 different languages successfully transitioned into the "Taft family" last fall. Taft made that transition possible through initiatives tailored to address the challenges refugee students and their families faced as they entered an unfamiliar school. Taft also mastered its own challenges; between spring and fall of 2008, the school, which serves 355 students, went from serving only one English language learner to serving more than 60.
The summer before school opened, these 58 new students had attended Tiger Pride Summer Camp, a two-week nonacademic team-building experience designed to develop a sense of belonging and introduce students to the traditions of their new school. The camp made a tremendous difference in easing students into their new environment. But its success depended on the relationships of mutual trust that teachers had built through summer home visits with families.

A Sudden Transformation

Newly arrived immigrant students have brought dramatic changes to schools like Taft in many urban areas, but Taft's transformation was sudden. When the city of Boise was designated by the federal government as a site for refugee resettlement, Boise School District experienced unprecedented growth in its English language learner (ELL) population, which grew by 123 percent in the past six years. Families arrived from Sudan, Iraq, Uzbekistan, Liberia, and many other nations. The district now serves 3,352 ELLs who speak 88 languages.
Taft principal Susan Williamson learned in April 2008 that the school district had designated her school as an ELL site. Forty refugee students were slated to be administratively transferred to Taft from other schools in the district by June (and an additional 18 enrolled in September).
These students came from 16 different countries and spoke 14 languages. Their family backgrounds and experiences varied. Some were well-educated in their countries of origin and literate in their languages; others, as the second generation born and raised in a refugee camp, had never consistently attended school.
The teachers, staff, and neighborhood community of Taft are no strangers to challenges. Taft's student body is 73 percent low-income, and when Williamson arrived at the school 10 years ago test scores were low, morale was dismal, and student behavior was out of control. Under her leadership, student achievement increased significantly and Taft became recognized as a National Blue Ribbon School.
Nonetheless, ensuring that a group of newcomers, half of whom had minimal English language proficiency, would achieve at high levels posed a formidable expectation. Some teachers felt apprehensive about sliding back from the school's hard-earned gains and were anxious about their ability to work with English language learners. The district assigned Taft a certified ELL teacher and a paraprofessional and offered the services of an ELL consultant and the director of the district's ELL program. These services helped, but the school knew it would have to put forth effort to forge trusting relationships.

An Antidote to Displacement

With fewer than 45 days remaining in the 2007–08 school year, a small team began taking action to welcome the refugee students. The team learned as much as possible about these youth and their families. It gathered information from the students' former schools and the many agencies that serve the refugee population in Boise.
Using hours typically set aside for faculty meetings and two half-day professional development opportunities, teachers and staff devoured information about the needs of English language learners—and refugees in particular. Teachers continued previously initiated training in sheltered instruction using a model called the Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol. The district's ELL program coordinator stepped in to provide additional targeted support, including professional development related to legal issues and terminology, curriculum guidance and supplemental ELL materials, and leads for finding interpreters. Second grade teacher Tracy Zarate was reassigned as Taft's ELL teacher, teaching small groups formed around students' needs and often preteaching vocabulary and important concepts.
To help Taft's current students learn about their new classmates, Fidel Nshombo, a Congolese refugee and a resident of Boise, spoke at a schoolwide assembly in the spring about his experiences. Fidel explained that refugees are different from immigrants in key ways. An immigrant voluntarily leaves his or her country of origin, whereas a refugee is compelled to leave, often fleeing a desperate situation.
Refugees are by definition displaced. For these students and their families, the move to Taft represented another displacement—an uprooting from the school they had initially come to know in Boise, even for a short time. The Taft team understood the importance of fostering a new sense of place and belonging in students.
Taft's 5th graders conducted research on the various countries that the soon-to-arrive students had left. They produced a newsletter called Cultural Connection that they distributed to Taft students and their families. Bulletin boards depicting the countries and cultures of the incoming students lined the hallways, and teachers made frequent links between classroom instruction and these cultures.

Establishing Trust

The team worked diligently to foster communication and relationships with refugee students' families. After only a handful of parents—many of whom were resistant, fearful, or angry about the transfer to Taft—attended an initial meeting, the team knew it had to actively reach out to build trust. So team members set—and met—a goal to visit each student's home before the refugees were invited to summer camp.
To facilitate these home visits, Robert and Debbie Weisel, founders of CATCH, a local organization that seeks to bridge the gap between schools and refugees, were enlisted. Many refugee families already knew and trusted Robert and Debbie; their involvement paved the way for families to accept overtures from Taft staff. Robert, himself the son of a refugee, is well connected with Boise agencies and networks serving this population. He provided Principal Williamson with what she called "Refugee 101" informal training that greatly advanced her understanding of complex issues related to educating refugees.
During a second round of home visits, Taft staff members gave families a packet of information translated into their native languages and containing a letter of welcome, photographs and names of every Taft staff member, and a collage depicting activities, traditions, and services available at Taft. "The big turnaround in trust came after the home visits," Loren Cross explained.
Many in the Taft family made extraordinary efforts to cement that trust. For example, one refugee parent didn't want his children to walk to school because he feared they would be kidnapped. So Cross and other faculty members walked his children to school and back every day the first week of school; Cross continues to walk with them at least once a week.

Happy Campers!

To help students feel part of a community from day one, the team created an intensive introductory summer experience. A summer camp would help students meet new friends, put families at ease, and give Taft's teachers an opportunity to become acquainted with the new students and teach them about schoolwide practices and expectations that were the foundation of Taft's continued success. Williamson recruited Cross to coordinate the half-day camp, and several other teachers and staff members joined the effort.
Planning a two-week summer camp on such a short time line required fiscal ingenuity and partnerships with the local YMCA and parks and recreation programs. Because the school's remaining Title I funds were not enough to operate the camp, The school successfully turned to community partners for funding and volunteers.
The refugee students came to Taft for lunch and a tour of the school in preparation for the camp. Camp staff paired each new student with a chosen student from Taft. Many of these "buddy" students were selected because they had leadership ability and would be good role models; others were included because they too could benefit from new friendships. Photos of each "buddy pair" were made into buttons and delivered to each new student's home with a reminder about the upcoming camp.
The Tiger Pride camp concentrated on team-building activities, including creative arts, hip-hop dance, African drumming and other music making, physical education, and many team sports. As students rotated through activities, staying in their buddy pairs, the kids bonded.
Speaking different languages presented few barriers to students' burgeoning friendships. They used both hand signals and spoken words to communicate. By the second week, students were joking and laughing with one another.

Students play team-building games at Taft's Tiger Pride summer camp.

Courtesy of W.H. Taft Elementary School.

During the first few weeks of the school year, the camp's success became patently clear. The families seemed much more at ease with their children's impending changes. Tracy Zarate, Taft's ELL teacher, knew the camp was a success when she witnessed new students reminding others of things they had learned in camp. "I have never seen a group of children so enthusiastic and eager about learning," she remarked.

Ongoing Efforts: Whatever It Takes

Taft's "whatever it takes" attitude made what could have been a difficult transition for its new students into a smooth success. By doing a quick study on refugee realities and plunging in wholeheartedly to create a welcoming environment, teachers and staff learned many lessons about successfully welcoming a wave of diverse non-English-speaking students. These lessons included small, practical things like the fact that, in written communications for parents, it's better to use pictures and symbols or spell out details in simple language (because abbreviations or acronyms lead to confusion), or the importance of knowing siblings or others in the family who can help translate.
The Taft faculty continues outreach to Taft's newest families through ongoing home visits. With the input of a parent—once one of the most resistant to the transfer of her child—the Taft team launched the Tiger Pride Family Learning Academy for the newcomer parents and their children. This parent academy is still going strong, using all volunteers.
Thanks to creative efforts to foster a sense of belonging in vulnerable students, the 2008–09 school year is unfolding better than anyone expected.
End Notes

1 Echevarria, J., Vogt, M., Short, D. J., & Short, D. (2004). Making content comprehensible for English-language Learners: The SIOP model. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

William Parrett has received international recognition for his work in school improvement related to children and adolescents who live in poverty. He is Director Emeritus at Boise State University Center for School Improvement and Policy Studies.

He has worked to improve the educational achievement of all children and youth, particularly those less advantaged. As director of the Center for School Improvement and Policy Studies, Parrett coordinated funded projects and school improvement initiatives that exceed $5 million a year.

He has coauthored 12 books; 3 of which are bestsellers, including Turning High-Poverty Schools into High-Performing Schools. Written with Kathleen Budge, it guides lasting improvement and student success in high-poverty schools.

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