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Education | Specialized programs help immigrant and refugee students assimilate into U.S. schools
by Laura Edghill
Posted 12/04/19, 06:25 pm

Amid hallways decked with international flags, more than 200 children from 21 countries—including Afghanistan, Cuba, and Myanmar (also known as Burma)—chatter in a mix of English and 15 other languages at Valencia Newcomer School in Phoenix. As they make friends and learn about American classroom etiquette, they also pick up vital language skills.

“I like this school because they teach you English, and you learn it fast,” said 10-year-old Rebecca Kawa, the daughter of Congolese refugees. Kawa grew up in a Ugandan refugee camp and never learned English before arriving at Valencia. But after two months, she no longer needed an interpreter.

Valencia is one of the few public schools in the country that specializes in helping immigrant and refugee students integrate into the nation’s schools. Public schools typically offer language classes and social workers, but these newcomer programs exist as separate schools or schools within a school.

Programs like Valencia’s teach children American classroom norms like raising their hands, lining up, and even figuring out everyday items like light switches on the wall. The work often goes beyond the classroom, as well.

“We have to be there for them, whether it’s academically or getting them services like immunizations,” said Kristine Jones, a teacher at Valencia.

Some students enter the program possessing a solid formal education and just need help to accelerate their language acquisition. But many students arrive behind academically because war and forced migration hampered their access to consistent schooling.

More than 4.7 million foreign-born children attend pre-kindergarten through post-secondary school in the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Education. That’s about 6 percent of the country’s total student population. An additional 20 million children of foreign-born parents are in classrooms nationwide.

The highly specialized newcomer programs are few and far between. In addition to Valencia, similar schools exist in Texas, Indiana, North Carolina, and Rhode Island.

Education policy expert Anne Wicks described in The Catalyst, a journal published by the George W. Bush Institute, how assimilation for immigrant and refugee children requires a strategic approach: “For immigrants, assimilation into American culture does not happen purely through osmosis. Schools play a key role in this process—much deeper than just teaching English.”

Valencia teaching assistant Samuel Lavi, who is from the Democratic Republic of Congo and speaks seven languages, greets children every day with a hug or high-five. “My most important role is to make sure the students get what they’re supposed to get,” he said.

Associated Press/Photo by Carolyn Kaster (file) Associated Press/Photo by Carolyn Kaster (file) Education Secretary Betsy DeVos

Clean slates

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos directed her department last month to forgive the federal loans of more than 1,500 borrowers who attended two for-profit colleges that shuttered abruptly last year. The debt cancellation amounts to approximately $11 million in federal funds.

The for-profit Dream Center Education Holdings, which operated the Art Institutes, Argosy University, and South University chains of colleges, collapsed last year, shutting down campuses nationwide. Students who attended these schools were eligible for loan forgiveness only if they enrolled after June 28, 2018. But for students enrolled at the Art Institute of Colorado and the Illinois Institute of Art, a controversy involving their accreditation prompted the U.S. Department of Education to extend the window of eligibility an additional six months. In general, most federal loan discharge programs require the affected student to enroll fewer than 120 days before a school’s unexpected closure.

Former students R.J. Infusino and Keishana Mahone, both from Illinois, stand to receive $7,600 and $3,600, respectively, in debt relief. Infusino enrolled in a Florida-based online course to complete his degree, and Mahone is still considering her options. The average loan amount per affected student is about $7,000.

Critics complain that the window is still too restrictive, leaving thousands of borrowers high and dry.

“For the vast majority of defrauded students, this announcement cancels only a small portion of the loans they took out to attend a failing school,” said Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., chairman of the House Education Committee. —L.E.

Creative Commons/N p holmes Creative Commons/N p holmes The archive of the Thesaurus Linguae Latinae in Munich

Unfinished opus

German researchers who embarked on a massive Latin dictionary project in the 1890s originally predicted it would take 15 to 20 years to complete. More than a century later, the collective work of nearly 400 scholars remains unfinished.

While only a small fraction of schools across the country teach Latin, its value remains as the linguistic foundation for the sciences, arts, and humanities. Even the impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump, with their allegations of a “quid pro quo,” require an understanding of the ancient language.

“Its scale is prodigious,” David Butterfield, a senior lecturer in classics at the University of Cambridge, told The New York Times about the comprehensive project. He added that when the first portion was published in 1900, “it did not go unnoticed that the word closing that installment was ‘absurdus.’”

For now, the Thesaurus Linguae Latinae occupies 18 giant volumes and about 10 million aging paper slips housed on more than two floors of a palace in Munich. Scholars are toiling over words that start with the letter “R” and hope to finish the entire endeavor by 2050. —L.E.

No room for nativities

An unexpected side effect of Britain’s upcoming national election on Dec. 12: Numerous primary schools have had to cancel their nativity plays. Many schools across the nation will close that day to accommodate polling stations. The traditional retelling of the Christmas story is a long-standing fixture in both religious and secular British schools. But the upcoming general election has created an uproar in many communities grappling with the loss of a cherished tradition.

While many schools present “updated” secularized versions of Christ’s birth that include spacemen, punk fairies, and other non-Biblical additions, many more simply tell the story—complete with bath-robed shepherds and pint-sized Josephs and Marys who may or may not remember their lines. —L.E.

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Laura Edghill

Laura is an education correspondent for WORLD. She is a World Journalism Institute and Northwestern University graduate and serves as the communications director for her church. Laura resides with her husband and three sons in Clinton Township, Mich. Follow Laura on Twitter @LTEdghill.

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    Posted: Thu, 12/05/2019 10:52 pm

    Valencia newcomer school looks like a nice place for immigrant kids. It's a good thing.

    I just wish the Education Dept. would also consider free lunches for American kids as well.

    With both parents having to work to make ends meet, as well as single parents. They are tired and need assistance with at least one good meal a day. 

    Posted: Thu, 12/05/2019 10:54 pm

    The importance of teaching Latin was encouraged in the Homeschool community.

  • Laura W
    Posted: Fri, 12/06/2019 10:05 am

    Those schools sound like a really great idea. They probably go quite a long way to reduce immigrant kids' feelings of isolation when they attend more typical public schools later. Much better to learn how a light switch is used when your peers are learning too than when they're likely to laugh.