Grant gives Oakland schools funding for refugee students

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The Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) has received a $1.8 million grant to provide supplemental resources for students who are refugees, asylees, and unaccompanied minors who are served by the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement. The award, which comes from the State of California, was assigned in late February. 

The funds will pay for three main project areas of service: academic support focused on foundational literacy; providing academic and career pathways; and safety and student engagement.

“We’re thrilled that we have this funding to support our students. The needs are so incredibly high [and] the challenges are really great. Any resources that we can harness to meet the very unique needs of our newcomer population, we are ecstatic to be able to provide,” said Nicole Knight, executive director of the OUSD English Language Learner and Multilingual Achievement (ELLMA) Office, which secured the grant for the district.

The grant comes as part of the California Newcomer Education and Well-Being (CalNEW) Project, a program under the California Department of Social Services that seeks to provide resources to improve the academic performance, English-language proficiency, and well-being of eligible students.

According to ELLMA statistics, as of last May 8, in the Oakland school district there are 2,655 newcomers, or students who arrived to the country within the last three years. That number has increased by 1,283 students since the 2013-2014 school year. There are 643 unaccompanied minors, kids who have fled their countries without any adult supervision or support, many of whom have pending asylum cases. There are also 336 refugee and asylee students.

Refugee and asylee students come from more than 40 countries, including Guatemala, El Salvador, Burma/Thailand, Afghanistan, Eritrea, Bhutan/Nepal, Iraq, and El Salvador.

To improve academic support and literacy, the school district will hire newcomer assistants who will serve as classroom aids. They will cooperate with teachers in order to address the educational gap that many students face when arriving in the district.

“The more people that we have in our classrooms, the more people from diverse backgrounds who speak different languages, the better chance we have of having a strong connection with students. That’s going to make the difference for them to stay in school,” said Nathaniel Dunstan, program manager from the Refugee and Asylee Program, which runs under the ELLMA office. He added that many of the high school students who arrive from other countries have had an educational interruption of up to two years.

He believes that providing social and emotional support through mentorship is imperative. “If we could have one-to-one instruction with every student, that would be great. Just increasing the number of adults in the classroom, and the number of caring adults that they’re interacting with every day—they are providing a strong model and mentorship. That’s invaluable,” said Dunstan.

Career advising is another area that the grant will address by funding the hiring of a bilingual counselor who will connect students with college and vocational training resources, expand employment training, and evaluate foreign school transcripts to ensure that school credits are transferable.

According to Knight, the academic success of these students can be at risk because of factors that occur outside of the school setting, such as family financial issues. “Yes, they’re learning English and that is incredibly challenging for them. But there’s layers and layers of other issues that go beyond being new to a language,” she said. “The challenges are just daunting.” According to Knight, many of the students are homeless or are placed in transitional and temporary housing. In many cases, students also have to find a job, in addition to going to school.

Lastly, the grant project will focus on student safety and engagement in order to help students adjust to the Oakland community and reduce risk factors that lead to “dangerous and unhealthy outcomes,” according to the OUSD CalNEW project overview. This strategy involves working with community-based organizations and connecting parents with educators to address these issues.

The grant will be disbursed over three years, starting with $611,840 during the 2017-2018 school year, and with the same amount being paid out for the following two years.

Amy Weiss, director of refugee and immigrant services at the Jewish Family & Community Services, a center for transitional help for refugees and immigrants in the East Bay, said that immigrant students arrive with a variety of needs that a school district must address.

“It’s hard to make a sweeping statement about these students, because they come from very different families and situations,” said Weiss. “These families have had a lot of stress, had to adapt to extreme changes. The refugees had to flee because they are not safe in their home countries. There is a variety of reasons why people are immigrants. They come to escape—in Central America and Mexico, often, they escape violence and gangs, and drug trafficking and etc. Some are here as economic migrants.”

But she praised the funding of programs that are specifically targeted to help refugees and immigrants. “These programs are so important, because they provide the kind of support that enables refugees and immigrants to thrive and make those adjustments, get on their feet, and start their lives,” said Weiss.

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