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Oakland School District program helps refugees break language barrier

on January 26, 2018

“Yes,” said Hajiia Fun in a soft voice, nervously laughing after she was asked by Nate Dunstan from the Oakland Unified School District’s (OUSD) refugee and asylee Program if she could help translate for her fellow classmates. Speaking Arabic, she told two other mothers that a group of staff members were there to aid them with student registration and introduce them to support services offered by the district.

The women were attending an English as a Second Language (ESL) beginners class at Allendale Elementary School, which is in Fruitvale. According to the Asian Pacific Islander (API) Student Achievement Initiative, the district’s Arabic-speaking and Pacific Islander students struggle the most when it comes to literacy. Members of the initiative say there is a gap in communication and educational support between these students and their families, as some of these families do not speak English, and some are even illiterate.

To raise the literacy of these students, the Asian Pacific Islander (API) Student Achievement Initiative, part of the OUSD’s Office of Equity, is leading “targeted outreach” meetings to aid parents with resources to improve their language skills and introduce them to educational programs for children. “The goal is to support their children’s education,” said Lailan Huen, director of the initiative.

According to a report following the initiative’s listening campaign, which was published in November 2017, 73 percent of Arabic-speaking students’ reading levels were several years below their grade level during the 2016-17 school year. According to the report, 66 percent were not on track to graduate from high school.

About 20 people, including OUSD mothers, teachers, translators, volunteers, and staff from the refugee and asylee program met with the members of the API Student Achievement Initiative on Wednesday to help the women enroll their children into the next school year on time, and inform them about other resources that their children can access. The meeting took place after the parents’ ESL class, where nine immigrant mothers from countries like Uganda, Guatemala, Afghanistan and Yemen meet several times a week and share the experience of learning a new language.

Fun immigrated from Afghanistan to Oakland three years ago, and she has attended the class for one year. “You have to learn how adults learn. … Some of them can’t even move their muscles to [make] a ‘v’ sound,” said Victoria Dobbs, a volunteer who has worked with the ESL class for two years.

“You’ll have someone who doesn’t know the other person’s language, but they know how to help out in this project. They just try to help out each other with the little bit of English that they do know,” Dobbs continued as she held 5-month-old Sara, one of Fun’s two children, in her arms to help Fun concentrate on the meeting.

The workshop was timely as Friday, January 26, is the deadline for registration at OUSD schools. With the help of a translator, Huen shared information with parents, including information on the district’s online enrollment system, college and scholarship resources for high school students, and immigration and citizen support. The parents were also informed about summer programs for kids and the non-profit family resource center, Lotus Bloom, which organizes playgroup activities for families who do not have access to preschool or early learning programs.

“I want parents to feel empowered,” said Desiree Miles about the outreach that the API initiative is doing at Allendale, where she is the principal. According to Miles, one of the issues affecting attendance in ESL classes for parents is that many have children who are too young to be enrolled in babysitting programs. Even though having young children in the class can be distracting, the school is flexible when it comes to allowing small children in the classroom. “This is their school, also—it’s their community,” said Miles.

According to the initiative’s November report, other factors affecting the performance of Arabic-speaking and API students include a lack of their cultural and homeland history in the district’s curriculum; mental and social health issues; safety and bullying experiences; limited translation resources; chronic absences due to their family’s financial needs; limited exposure to future career options; and limited access to college preparation programs.

The mothers who attended the meeting filled out paperwork to enroll their kids in playgroups, wrote their information on a sheet of paper to get help when enrolling their kids for the following school year, and asked questions about enrollment and immigration. During the parents’ ESL class, some of the mothers chatted about what they’d observed in American culture, like the style of clothing. “Everything different is good,” said Fun when asked about the differences between Afghanistan and the United States.


  1. […] One year after the Trump administration’s first attempt to implement a travel ban against people from Muslim-majority countries, we looked back at where the ban stood in the courts, and how it had affected the lives of East Bay residents. Meanwhile, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf notified residents of impending immigration raids, sparking a national debate over her decision.  Local immigration groups prepared to respond to those raids, while others offered workshops to help people know what to do if they were detained, and the Oakland school district offered services to refugees and asylum seekers. […]

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