Over the past couple of years, Sacramento has become a home to diasporas from all over the world — from Afghanistan following the chaotic and deadly U.S. withdrawal, leaving the country under Taliban control, to Ukraine, which has just entered its second year of the war.
There are many other examples from Syria to Latin America, just to name a few of the people and families fleeing their homeland for safety and abruptly uprooted as refugees.
A significant piece of adjusting to a new county and a new way of life comes from schools which are far more than just classrooms — they’re a hub of resources for students and their families and, in doing so, become part of their new community.
CapRadio’s Insight host Vicki Gonzalez spoke with Sacramento Bee reporter Sawsan Morrar, who covers school accountability and culture.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
On learning about the Sacramento region’s growing population of refugee students
I’ve been going to campuses for a few years now. There was a lapse in that during the pandemic, but it’s very visible at some of these schools.
I did a story a couple of years back [about] San Juan Unified and just going to the campuses, it was very clear that these schools were very diverse and there were a lot of newcomers. And just talking to editors, we realized that there’s a story to be told about what schools are doing to accommodate these students and provide the resources that they need.
On changes to the refugee visa process
These students are students that were very vulnerable and needed a lot of support. And one thing I learned, in particular with this latest reporting, is that these students were very different than the earlier wave of Afghan families that were coming here.
Early on, Sacramento saw a wave of Afghan families that were coming that … had special immigrant visas. So these are families that worked with the U.S. government — they either worked as translators or with NGOs, and so because of that, a lot of them were already familiar with English.
But these [recent] families were refugees. A lot of them don’t speak English, and the school district really understood that, and said, “we have to give them the additional support that they need.”
On the results of the investigation
So simply put, we asked for the data. We asked, “where do you have the most concentration of refugees? Where are all of your English language learners?”
To my surprise, Dyer-Kelly [Elementary School] has a population of 73% English language learners. That school has about 700 students, over 500 of them speak English as a second language.
More than a third of them are refugees. There are similar numbers at Starr King K-8 [School], they have a larger concentration of English language learners. A lot of families are settling in those areas, mostly because some of the resources and some of the centers are in that Arden Arcade area.
On San Juan Unified is doing to support refugee students
So visiting the campuses, they have just a countless number of programs for them. They have after-school cooking programs.
They have something called newcomer support programs where they are able to pair up [with] … cultural brokers. They have about 17 of them in their school district.
A lot of these employees are following them to the classroom, ensuring that they have translators if they need them for assignments or to communicate with their teachers.
They have bilingual and structural assets. They even have a Saturday academy for some of these families to help them assimilate and really integrate these families into the school district family.
On language services within the district
Being in California, a lot of these school districts, that second language is usually Spanish.
[But many of the district’s students speak] Farsi, Dari, Arabic, Russian. So [school districts] ensure that they have enough employees that speak those languages. They have hired quite a few employees that speak Dari and speak Farsi that are stationed at schools.
Oftentimes [translators] moving … from school to school. Starr King K-8 School told me that they had such a need at their school that they requested to have an employee just stationed at their school to go from classroom to classroom.
I mean … you can tell that the need is really there. So they are ensuring that they’re hiring enough employees and enough staff to stay with students and make sure that they’re well accommodated for.
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