If you ask 10-year-old Ti where he’s from, he’ll tell you he’s from Thailand. If you ask what part of Thailand, he’ll tell you, “section six.”

Ti belongs to the Karenni people, an ethnic group persecuted in their home country of Myanmar. He was born in a refugee camp for Karenni people who crossed the border into Thailand. He grew up in section six of one of the camps.

That camp is a long way away from the table at St. Matthew Catholic Church, where Ti sat surrounded by fellow Karenni refugee students at the Literacy Education for Newcomer Students (LENS) camp, hosted by Catholic Charities and the University of Texas at San Antonio.

Each child seated around him represented a journey toward safety and stability. Catholic Charities is the local partner of the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement. The resettlement program gives families two years of financial support and social services while they get on their feet in their new homes. The newest of these services, the LENS camp, is part of the Refugee School Impact Services, which helps students integrate into the public school system. The LENS camp is designed to tackle one of the largest obstacles for newcomers: literacy.

Few Words, Many Faces

Ti’s family obtained refugee status and were settled in San Antonio in 2015. When they arrived, a family of six in a new country, Catholic Charities placed them in an apartment complex in Northside Independent School District. Equipped only with the English he learned from missionary- and NGO-sponsored tutors in the refugee camp, Ti began school at Glen Oaks Elementary within weeks of arrival.

“It was very hard. I do not know many words,” Ti said.

Refugee camp natives like Ti are increasingly common. Advocacy groups estimate about 14,000 Karenni are refugees in Thailand, and some have been in the camps for decades. Those who make it to the U.S. are absorbed into a stream of refugees that includes everything from polyglot professional parents and their families traveling intact, to groups of orphaned siblings who have never had formal schooling.

When the first group of immigrants from a refugee camp in Central Africa arrived at Colonies North Elementary School in 2007, some had never had running water. Their journey toward reading on grade level began with understanding the basic infrastructure of the school building. “The priority was making them feel safe,” Colonies North Principal Kris Cotton said.

She was the vice principal when the first group arrived. The principal at the time quickly realized they would need more than basic English acquisition curriculum. She reached out to UTSA to get the multicultural training. Communities in Schools stepped in to provide individualized case management to the wide range of needs students present. 

The complex services and supports given to recent refugee students are known as “newcomer programs” and they are tied to the support they receive from Catholic Charities. A successful newcomer program depends on flexible and constant communication between the school, the resettlement agency, and others  – including churches, universities, and nonprofits – brought in to help the students.

“All of them have fled something,” said Sarah Aguirre, who leads a newcomer classroom at Colonies North. “They have all experienced danger.”

While the school is currently developing more comprehensive counseling services, many times the students talk through their trauma in class. Every year, Aguirre said, students relate immediately to the “bad guys” in stories.

In the beginning, many students go through what is known as the “silent phase.” During this time students are typically reserved, observant, and hesitant to speak. Learning how to cope with the silent phase is one of the most difficult aspects of teaching newcomers, Aguirre said. It’s difficult to tell whether the students are feeling secure and whether they are retaining information. Emerging from the silent phase is as much about safety as it is about language acquisition.

Newcomers Welcome

The NISD newcomer program began at Glen Oaks and Meade Elementary Schools, but because the apartments used by Catholic Charities to house refugees are located within Colonies North’s attendance area, most newcomers now go there. Of the school’s 752 students, 35% have limited English proficiency. Most of those are refugee students from around the world, Cotton said. 

Camp leader David Haston works with students during a lesson on pollution.
Camp leader David Haston works with students during a lesson on pollution. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

The partnership with UTSA has helped Aguirre, who was trained as a fourth grade teacher, and other Colonies North faculty adapt to the challenge of teaching one of four multi-age newcomer classrooms where students are simultaneously learning social and cultural customs, academic content, and English.

The result, Aguirre explained, is constant adjustment. Each kid will have different levels of literacy in their own language. During the 2016-17 school year, many of her students were the children of Afghani men who had worked as translators for the military. Literate in their own language, these students had an easier time with the academic transition than those who have grown up moving between crisis situations. The 43 countries currently represented at Colonies North could form a heat map of global conflict over the past decades.

In a way, the newcomer classrooms are a model of what would benefit most students, said Misty Sailors, director of UTSA’s Center for the Inquiry of Transformative Literacies. Tailored instruction and strategically deployed resources would make a huge difference for any student. She sees the best practices for refugee students as best practices in almost any context. Teaching students run the LENS camp, and UTSA places some student teachers at schools with newcomer programs. Sailors said that the experience transforms the way they think about teaching in any context. 

“It disrupts their notions of teaching,” Sailors said. That disruption allows them to tackle problems in the classroom.

Students gather around the move Finding Dory while waiting for the bus to drive them home from camp.
Students gather around the movie Finding Dory while waiting for the bus to drive them home from camp. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

While the newcomers undergo standardized testing, they are given five years in which their academic growth is their primary measurement on the STAAR test. For many of them, the testing format itself, especially if it is administered on a computer, comes with a learning curve. Cotton has been impressed by how hard the students work in class.

“They want to be in school,” Cotton said. “The few times they don’t behave, I remind them that this is why their parents came here.”

How and why the students’ families came to the United States will eventually form the basis of a book project by UTSA’s Center for the Inquiry of Transformative Literacies. The biographical stories will be shared with future newcomers to encourage dialogue, contributing to Sailors’ culture-based approach to literacy.

She finds that it is often the themes in books that bring together the cultural and language components of the newcomer program. The LENS camp provides even more intensive immersion in literature. Students spend the day in groups reading and discussing several books on a given subject. Whether the topic is snakes, pollution, or even the concept of “language,” students are exposed to culture and content while their reading comprehension and vocabulary grow.

“Our goal is to get kids talking,” Sailors said. “The single best way to do that is through literature.” 

A Growing Community

Some students need the full two years of services offered by the refugee resettlement program. Others adjust more quickly and are ready to begin to integrate into the general student population before the two years are up.

“We very much do it on a kid-by-kid basis,” Aguirre said. 

At the LENS camp, Ti was one of the more advanced students. Some, more recently arrived, were still in their silent phase. 

Despite the silent phase many students go through, during the school year Aguirre’s class is loud. Students are encouraged to talk constantly – to themselves, to each other. Students are encouraged to mentor each other as well. Aguirre occasionally hands over the reins to students to help each other. It’s all very noisy.

The noise, Cotton explains, actually makes it easier to practice language comfortably, because all ears aren’t focused on any one students’ efforts.

Because learning to speak a new language involves constant failure, everyone involved with the newcomer program is encouraged to celebrate the culture kids bring with them.

“It’s a space where children are respected,” Cotton said. “What they bring is highly respected.”

To celebrate its diversity, Colonies North hosts a Parade of Nations, where kids parade behind the flags of their home country. The multicultural atmosphere has enriched the experience for the whole school, Cotton said. In fact, every year families from around the district apply to send their kids to Colonies North as a school of choice. Aguirre sends her own children to the school.

“My children’s outlook on the world is very different,” she said.

The parents of the newcomers are ready to be involved, despite logistic challenges. Since most live in the apartment complexes allotted by Catholic Charities, the school will often focus outreach efforts there, taking information to the parents. Even after they have moved on from the Catholic Charities services, many families rent apartments or homes in the same area so that they can stay connected to the refugee community.

Local churches, such as St. Matthew, also become gathering places for the refugees. For the LENS camp, Catholic Charities spread the word through the St. Matthew community and ended up reaching some students whose families had moved to other parts of town. The word-of-mouth method resulted in a mix of language levels at the camp, which is ideal for building confidence, as students can help students meet the challenges of their new home.

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Bekah McNeel

Bekah McNeel is a native San Antonian. You can also find her at her blog, FreeBekah.com, on Twitter @BekahMcneel, and on Instagram @wanderbekah.