More Refugees Land In City Schools
Extra Students Welcomed To Resettlement Program
Posted: December 29, 2012
HARRISONBURG — An influx of school-age immigrants through the Harrisonburg Refugee Resettlement office this year has in turn led to significant growth for the Harrisonburg City Schools’ newcomer program.
But besides some minor space issues, educators say the extra students are a welcome addition to the relatively new program, designed for students who are new to the U.S. school system and who need to learn English.
“I believe we are a richer, more vibrant community because of being a welcoming environment for refugees,” said Laura Feichtinger McGrath, who oversees newcomer students at Harrisonburg High School.
The number of children in the Harrisonburg Refugee Resettlement program stagnated in 2011 before rebounding this year.
Currently, 16 students are in the newcomer program in grades three through five, and 31 students are in the initiative in grades six through eight, according to Amanda Horne, a newcomer program coordinator for city schools.
That compares to nine and 17 students, respectively, in the fall of 2011.
This is the seventh year that Harrisonburg City Schools has had a program for third- through fifth-graders and the fifth year for the sixth- through eighth-grade program.
Growth is also occurring at the high school level, according to McGrath.
“Our newcomer class is overflowing right now,” she said. “Last year we probably had more kids coming to us from within the United States from other newcomer programs. This year most of the students we are seeing are actually new arrivals to the United States.”
McGrath said the high school program has had 24 new arrivals to the U.S. this year, compared to 11 last year.
The main reason for the growth is that Harrisonburg Refugee Resettlement has seen a higher number of families with school-age children migrating to Harrisonburg, according to Rachel Van Patter, who coordinates between the office and the schools.
“In the past few years we’ve had a decent number of husbands and fathers coming over and now their families are coming over to be resettled,” she said.
Van Patter said that in 2011, her office had 10 children arrive in Harrisonburg, compared to 44 this year.
“Definitely a big influx,” she said.
The disparity in numbers between the two years is due in part to changes made to homeland security procedures in 2011. The changes made getting into the United States a slower process for refugees, Van Patter said. But now the process is picking up again, putting the number of newcomer students slightly over where it was in 2010, according to educators.
For educators, the larger numbers have brought a few challenges.
“When classes are large it becomes harder to meet [students’] needs,” McGrath said. “[Learning a language] is a very personal and very wonderful and complex experience and it is better when it is [done in] smaller classes.”
McGrath said smaller classes give students a more personal experience with more time to talk, listen and ask questions. Being able to learn English is essential to newcomers’ succeeding on tests like the Standards of Learning, which can be difficult because they are geared toward American children, McGrath said.
But McGrath said the program has been successful.
“I’ve had students who were here three years and they are passing these tests,” she said.
Another challenge at the lower level of the program is space, Horne said.
Third- through fifth-graders used to be housed at Smithland Elementary School, but because of the program’s growth, all students in grades three through eight now take classes at Skyline Middle School, Horne said.
Elementary-aged children, however still take recess and eat lunch with children their own age.
The big perk of the program, said McGrath, is the diversification of the city school system.
“We have amazing kids, lots of them are truly gifted. They have unbelievable experiences and I think we are all learning from those,” she said. “It’s just a really great thing to run into [a] classroom and have a whole world staring back at you.”
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