Coalition for Community Schools
A Foundation for Immigrant Youth: South Salt Lake Community Schools Supporting Refugees and Immigrants
In order for a community school to be effective, it cannot divorce itself from issues that are facing its community. A major issue facing our communities and in fact our country is the issue of increased numbers of refugees and immigrants. Whatever your political preference, refugees and immigrants continue to flow into our communities and our schools. One organization that is working tirelessly to ensure that schools are equipped to provide the best support possible for this population is the United Way of Salt Lake. This organization is working diligently to provide support for new families and students to ensure that English Language Learners (ELL) assimilate successfully into the fabric of American society.
“One of the specific problems that we face in Salt Lake City, is working with immigrant populations that need our support,” stated Scott McLeod, VP of Collective Impact Partnerships at the United Way of Salt Lake. “There is a large Latino population, as well as a large refugee population. We are one of about 15 sites around the country where refugees are placed. All the young people coming from these places need ELL support from us.” In South Salt Lake, there is a particularly large refugee population, due to several refugee service agencies relocating new families there, for the affordable housing. “A large majority of our families that relocate to South Salt Lake are from the Middle East or Arabic speaking countries as well as Africa, specifically Swahili and Somali speaking families, but there are a lot more than that.” said Amanda Matthews, Community Schools Director at Lincoln Elementary in South Salt Lake, a school of about 600 students. “At any time, we can have to up to 25 native languages spoken in the building at a time.”
The summer is also an important time for targeted classes to ensure reading goals for the refugee and migrant populations are achieved. “We use the DIBELS assessments at the end of the year to do targeted outreach for students that need support over the summer in in their English Language Learning,” stated Scott. “We give priority to students whose scores indicate a need for intensive and strategic levels of reading support, and many of our refugee and immigrant students fall into this category.”
Community schools are prepared to support refugee and immigrant students and families. These migrant populations need language services, support for undocumented families, and support for the cultural transition. “Not only are students coming to a place where they have yet to learn the native language, but oftentimes students are coming from a place where school will be one classroom with one building. We do a lot of work to ensure that students are culturally adjusted,” stated Carmela Castañeda, a Community School Director at Granite Park Junior High, who works on refugee alignment with the variety of refugee support organizations in Salt Lake. “We host a ten-week transition program for students, where they can situate themselves academically, learn about what it’s like to attend school here, and things they should look out for. It has been very beneficial for students, teachers, and families.” These programs strive to ensure students do not feel isolated as they enter their new school environment and that they get one-on-one support.
As Community School Directors, both Amanda and Carmela work closely with refugee partner organizations in order to streamline the resources between the organizations and the school. “We support these organizations in helping students understand everything in regards to starting the school year. We go out to the apartment complex where most of our refugee families are placed, and do a welcome back celebration. We also connect the agencies with the right interpreters if there are parent teacher conferences, or behavioral issues for the families,” stated Carmela. Many schools in South Salt Lake have implemented intensive ELL strategies, in order to create strong supports for student reading goals, as well as ELL courses for families who want to learn English.
The work being done by Community School Directors and refugee organizations in South Salt Lake’s and community of immigrants and refugees shows the adaptability of the community schools strategy in tackling unique issues. In this instance, community schools provide a foundation and support to new families and youth moving into the country. A new need was presented to the South Salt Lake community, and with the support of community schools, strategies were put in place to support students and families in need of comprehensive learning supports. Noting the benefit for families and for the entire community, Amanda observed, “It’s excellent to see the impact of what we’re doing for families, and to learn from them as our relationships progress.”