Schools scramble to hire bilingual aides as more refugee students arrive

A surge of refugees to the Sacramento area has transformed San Juan Unified into the local epicenter for students from Afghanistan, Ukraine, Iraq and Syria.

As a result, the district has hired non-credentialed bilingual instructional assistants who speak Arabic, Farsi, Dari, Pashto and Ukrainian to help newcomers understand classroom lessons.

In the last school year, approximately 3,000 refugees of all ages arrived locally, said Kirt Lewis of the Sacramento office of World Relief, one of four area refugee resettlement agencies. Another 3,000 have been projected for the current fiscal year that ends Sept. 30, he said. Four years ago, by comparison, only 850 refugees were resettled locally.

Refugee numbers are rising locally for several reasons. Housing costs are considered affordable, and refugees seek communities where friends or family members from their homelands have already settled.

That has fostered enclaves of refugees in San Juan’s Arden Arcade area. And it has helped Sacramento build a reputation over the years as a somewhat welcoming destination.

Another refugee enclave is growing in North Highlands, where many are enrolled at Woodbridge Elementary School, Foothill Ranch Middle School and Foothill High School in the Twin Rivers Unified School District.

The growth has pushed refugee enrollment to notable levels at both districts. San Juan has nearly 1,670 refugees, including more than 990 in just the last three years, say administrators. That represents 4 percent of the district’s 41,600 students, the highest share in recent years. The largest single category of refugees speak Arabic, languages common to Syria and Iraq.

“In our area in Sacramento, we’re struggling to get any teachers who speak the primary languages of Arabic or Farsi,” said Martha Quadros, program manager for English learners at San Juan. Hiring more teachers would be ideal, she said. “But there aren’t teachers yet in those languages.”

Even if the teachers were hired today, the need would remain. Refugees, like other English learners, are dispersed by school, grade level and classroom. And teachers may have classes where three, four or more languages are spoken, said Katie Combs, district spokeswoman. “We want to help grow all of our teachers’ abilities to work with students of multiple languages,” she said.

Combs said the district recently provided a workshop on engaging refugees in the classroom, cultural and religious norms and resettlement.

The approach at both school districts is to provide professional development for teachers whose classrooms have students of multiple languages. One strategy: Plenty of visual cues to help students learn English.

At Twin Rivers, about 500 refugees are enrolled, including more than 230 from Afghanistan, where Dari, Pashto and Farsi are common. The district with 25,500 students has 16 bilingual academic intervention specialists who monitor student progress, said Alberto Becerra, a coordinator of the English learner program. The specialists work with teachers and counselors to help guide student progress.

“Many of the refugees are not only coming with limited or varying amounts of English but they may be coming with considerable trauma,” said Anne Zeman, assistant superintendent for school leadership at Twin Rivers. “Think of Syria. Some of the refugees that are leaving Syria because they fear for their lives and that of their families. Their homes may be destroyed. Some may have been in resettlement.

“The challenge is not only language. It’s also acculturation. It’s the connection with services, how they navigate transportation systems.”

In the San Juan district, 49 schools have at least one refugee. Three schools have close to 400 refugees: Encina Preparatory High, Dyer-Kelly Elementary and Howe Avenue Elementary. The district has 45 bilingual instructional assistants who go to classrooms – sometimes at two schools – and work with small groups of refugees.

Nearly half work with Spanish-speaking students. Ten instructional assistants focus on Arabic. Eight on Farsi. And many visit multiple schools during the day.

At the Howe Avenue school last week, bilingual instructional assistant Dalya Abdullah sat with four first-grade boys who know Arabic but are learning English. While a teacher quizzed students on long vowels, short vowels and consonants, Abdullah did the same with her small group in one corner of the room.

She displayed a folded card with the letters T-A-P for the four boys.

“Tap,” Yousef Alshaban said correctly when she held the card aloft.

He repeated the answer louder when a seatmate hesitated to answer. Then Abdullah refolded the card, adding an “E” at the end for a long-vowel word.

“Tape,” said Yousef in unison with the other boys.

When the students seemed stymied, she shifted to Arabic to get them on track and then slid seamlessly back to English.

For nearly three years, Abdullah has worked at Howe Avenue Elementary with Arabic-speaking students, mainly from Syria and Iraq. The school is large, with 747 students, not including the 100 students in preschool and transitional kindergarten.

Abdullah came to the United States in 2010 as a refugee from Iraq, where she was a biologist. Now she’s working toward her teaching credential so she can continue helping refugees. She also helps students who speak other refugee languages.

Among the school of 750 students, there are 145 refugees. More than half the student body is learning English.

“I know what they are experiencing,” she said. “I always tell them, you need to take things step by step. Nothing can be perfect at the beginning. But you are in the right hands. I always be positive about that.”

It took Mohammad Marouf Sharifi and his family 3.5 years to reach Sacramento from Afghanistan where he had served as an interpreter for U.S. military forces. His children, now 5 and 6, enrolled at Howe Avenue Elementary in fall 2015. His older child, a daughter in the first grade, gives him pointers on English pronunciation.

“They are doing great,” said Sharifi, whose native language is Dari. “Now when I speak English my daughter tells me, ‘Dad, it’s not like this. It’s like that,’ because she took the pronunciation of America.”

Sharifi said he and his family hope to stay permanently in Sacramento. “We feel like we have a house here in Sacramento,” he said. “We feel like we have a place to call home.”

Sharifi offers his services as an interpreter and works as an Uber driver. And, he said, he’s already achieved one dream: He has written a novel in English, “The Homeless Afghan,” self-published in 2016 through XLibris.

Phillip Reese contributed to this report. Loretta Kalb: 916-321-1073, @LorettaSacBee

A closer look

For more information:

Read The Bee’s award-winning project, “No Safe Place,” which documented the plight of Afghan refugees in Sacramento.

Sacramento-area resettlement agencies:

World Relief, Sacramento office; Sacramento Food Bank & Family Services (in partnership with the Diocese of Sacramento); Opening Doors Inc.; and International Rescue Committee

More refugee data:

During the 2015-16 school year, about 950 Arabic speakers in Sacramento County schools were classified as English learners, more than double the number from five years earlier, state figures show. Of those, more than 60 percent attend San Juan. Only Spanish and Russian are more common native tongues among English learners in the district.

Only three other school districts in the state – Cajon Valley Unified, Los Angeles Unified and Oakland Unified – had a higher number of English learners speaking Arabic during the 2015-16 school year, the state figures show.