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Panel discusses refugee students in CHCCS

Dr. Niklaus Steiner, director of the UNC Center of Global Initiatives, is giving a opening talk on the Refugee Outreach Workshop in Global FedEx Center
Dr. Niklaus Steiner, director of the UNC Center of Global Initiatives, is giving a opening talk on the Refugee Outreach Workshop in Global FedEx Center

As Burmese refugees continue to flow into Orange County, Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools officials are working to better serve immigrant students.

School officials and community leaders met Saturday at UNC’s FedEx Global Education Center to discuss the influx of refugees into Chapel Hill. The event was geared toward teachers who will work with immigrant students after CHCCS’s upcoming redistricting process.

The event was hosted by East Chapel Hill High School’s Refugee Outreach Club, which provides tutoring to refugee students in elementary and middle school.

Panelist Paige Califf, a 2012 UNC graduate and AmeriCorps volunteer with Church World Service in Durham, spoke about the services her organization offers to newly resettled refugees, including housing, job training, community outreach and English courses.

She said the organization’s ultimate goal is to help local refugees be self-sufficient.

“We try to always be asking ourselves, ‘Is this the least intrusive path of action I can take? How am I protecting the refugees’ privacy in this moment? Is what we’re doing sustainable both for me as a staff member and for that refugee as an individual?’” she said.

Califf said of the 58,000 refugees who settled in the United States in fiscal year 2012, 2,000 came to North Carolina, with 300 settling in Durham and Chapel Hill. Many immigrants have come to the area through a program instituted by the United Nations in 2005 for refugees in Thailand, many of whom fled Burma.

According to a 2012 report by Amy Lerner, a Ph.D. student in UNC’s School of Education, there are currently 200 refugee students enrolled in public schools in Chapel Hill and Carrboro, half of whom are in elementary schools.

Anne Tomalin, an ESL teacher at Chapel Hill High School who was also on the panel, said it’s common for refugee students to lack some basic math and literacy skills as a result of political unrest in Burma, which may have kept them out of school for long periods.

“The challenge is that, in general, the structure of American schools presumes that students of a particular age have a specific set of skills. So if you get a 10- or 11-year old, you’d put them in fifth grade,” she said. “But pretty often, that kid may not have math skills that go past first or second grade.”

But despite potential difficulties, Tomalin said refugee students have certain advantages in the classroom, such as their increased appreciation for an education.

“For a teacher, you want students who appreciate the opportunity to get an education, and they work hard and understand that this is for their future. You don’t have to convince them of any of that, like you do most teenagers,” she said.

With the opening of Northside Elementary, this year’s redistricting plan will shift several refugee students from Frank Porter Graham Elementary School, which will become a dual language school.

Nidhi Cash, an ESL teacher at Rashkis Elementary School, said this year, she had three refugee students, but as a result of the redistricting, she’s expecting 18 next year. Cash said the language barrier is her greatest concern.

“The biggest problem has been communicating with the parents,” she said.

The panelists noted that the children are often more fluent in English than their parents, which can create a difficult family environment.

East Chapel Hill High junior Ling Aui, who fled Burma with her family in 2007, before starting middle school, said despite the challenges she has faced, her ESL teachers have been very supportive.

“They know what we’ve been through,” she said.

Aui said being the best English speaker in her family makes her feel deeply responsible for her education.

“They look up to me, so there’s a lot of pressure,” she said.

Tomalin said she hopes community leaders will begin paying attention to the growing needs of refugee students.

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“We all have to start thinking outside the box,” she said, “and start doing things that haven’t been done before.”