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New American students succeed with help from education programs

Nirmala Rai remembers the day she arrived in Fargo from a refugee camp in Nepal. It was Nov. 11, 2011. She remembers the yellow and orange leaves, and it feeling so cold outside that she thought she would throw up.

In a short story she wrote this past semester for class at Fargo South High School, titled “Once in a Blue Moon,” Rai wrote about spending her first days in Fargo learning to use electricity to cook food, filling out paperwork, and watching movies with her family. One day, she asked her cousin why she never saw any other kids around. Her cousin explained that they were in school; Rai began to wonder what school was like in America.

Shortly after, Rai was enrolled at Carl Ben Middle School. She recalls not being able to understand when her teacher said, “Nice to meet you.” Her uncle had to translate for her.

She remembers being scared.

For refugees such as Rai, working toward an education is crucial to adapt and succeed in the United States, but the transition is a difficult one. English Language Learners classes have been incorporated into Fargo schools to assist students during their adaption to the American education system, and Adult Education classes are available in Moorhead and Fargo for New Americans who cannot graduate from high school.

Each refugee has a unique journey to his or her American education, but each journey begins in the same place.

An increase in ELL enrollment

Vonnie Sanders’ office resides on the top floor of an old building, nestled between classrooms used for a special education daycare, an alternative high school and a basic education center. Small, dimly lit and covered with photos of people of all races and backgrounds, it doesn’t appear to be anything special. No passerby would assume nearly all refugee students in Fargo visit this office before enrolling in classes at a school near them.

Sanders is the director of English Language Learner programs in the Fargo school district, and assists new refugee students with her staff of 35 ELL teachers during the students’ transitions into a new education system.

Over 800 students are enrolled in ELL class in Fargo, according to Sanders. The number of ELL students has slightly increased in the past few years, mainly because of secondary migrants travelling to the area.

“People are coming to North Dakota for jobs, safety and good schools,” Sanders said.

When refugees arrive, they are usually greeted by a social worker from Lutheran Social Services. Their social workers help them to get into contact with the school nearest to their apartments, and then they come through Sanders’ office, where she explains everything from snow pants and lunch to credits and graduation to the children and teenagers.

The majority of these students are new to the English language and have not had access to a proper education. Nineteen-year-old senior Bir Gurund, who came to the United States from a refugee camp in Nepal when he was 15, explained the struggle of schooling in a refugee camp.

“Every morning, I woke up and went to the fountain to get water,” Gurund said. “I had to wait for half an hour in line, then walk to school.”

He said boys were not allowed to have long hair at school. They had to wear black pants and a white shirt tucked in with a ribbon on it. If they did not abide by the dress code, they were beat. If they did skipped school, they were beat.

“It was really bad over there,” Gurund said. “Very poor education.”

While Gurund’s mother did not want to come to the United States, she ultimately decided to do so for her children.

“She knew that . . . better education meant better life,” Gurund said.

Even if students come with some education, it is usually not accounted for when they get to America. While most credits from Iraq and more developed countries with modern education systems transfer properly, credits from refugee camps rarely transfer.

Most students will bring their comprehensive test but not their transcripts, Sanders said. Once they are here, there is no way for the transcripts to be sent separately before the students start school.

“There’s no fax machines in refugee camps,” Sanders said. “There’s not even paper in refugee camps.”

Sometimes, students will wait for another family member to come to the U.S. to bring the transcripts.

After Sanders reviews their transcripts, students schedule a time to take the WIDA model test, which measures academic language: This includes speaking, listening, reading and writing. Based on their scores, students are put in level 1, 2, 3, 4, or 5 ELL courses.

According to Sanders, basic interpersonal communication skills, otherwise known as conversational language, takes one to three years to learn. On the other hand, cognitive academic language proficiency or academic language takes five to seven years to fully understand. Therefore, students may have good conversational language but still be placed in a low level ELL class because it’s based on academic language.

After students are placed, teachers often do additional testing in subjects that were left out, such as math and social studies. Finally, the students are ready to begin classes.

Separate classes for ELL students

At an elementary level, students are pulled out of the classroom to partake in ELL classes depending on what level they are at. The students are able to at least partake in music and gym with their classmates.

In middle and high school, students have four periods of ELL classes that are separated from mainstream classrooms—language, reading, resource and math – and three periods of other classes. Social studies and science are also offered as ELL classes at a high school level, but are not required every semester. Electives are taken with their American classmates. Some of these electives include woodshop, art, foods, health and physical education.

Leah Juelke, an ELL teacher at Fargo South High School, said that students are usually able to test out of certain ELL classes and enroll in more mainstream classes at a level four or five. Before then, there is a lot of work to be done.

Juelke said that students come in at all different levels. Some were fairly well educated in their home countries; others do not know how to hold a pencil. Even if two students came at the same level, such as a level one, their skills may be very different.

To manage all different abilities, ELL teachers speak slowly and use a lot of modeling and visual teaching.

“For example, when we say open to page five, we don’t just breeze through that,” Juelke said. “We’ll say open to page five, then walk around with the book open with a finger on the page number.”

Teachers also try to correlate their lesson plans. For example, if Juelke were teaching her students about prepositional phrases, ELL math teachers would try to relate their lessons to prepositional phrases, such as pointing out prepositional phrases in word problems.

While learning English, math and other subjects is an obstacle by itself, the culture shock and adaption to American school systems is even more of a struggle.

The challenge of cultural differences

Juelke said that some of the biggest issues for refugee students in school don’t even involve schoolwork. They are outside circumstances, like getting a ride to school or understanding that showing up on time is important.

Students don’t understand how prompt they must be, and tardiness results in a lot of detentions, Juelke said. Students also assume that missing school is not a big issue, especially because around 80 percent of them have jobs, often to send money to family in their home countries.

She recalled one of her past male students who would attend classes, work from 5 p.m. to midnight, pick up his father from work at 3 a.m. and then sleep. So, he missed a lot of school.

Juelke said teachers cannot always express concerns, such as students missing too much school, to the student’s parents because the parents are difficult to contact.

“They have no emails,” Juelke said. “When we do [contact them], they are very thankful for the education their kids are receiving. We try to get them at conferences . . . but they’re working factory jobs and night shifts.”

Juelke said that ELL teachers are often the students’ main support system.

“During free periods, kids always come in and talk,” Juelke said. “They’ll stand by the door and wait. They just want a connection.”

This connection goes a long way. Juelke said in the past summer alone, she has attended two of her students’ weddings. During school, she and other teachers collect hats, gloves, baby clothes, prom dresses and suits – simple things that refugee students don’t have easy access to. Juelke said she learned long ago to supply her classroom with pencils, folders and notebooks, and she provides simple snacks like animal crackers when her students can’t stomach an American lunch such as hamburgers and fries.

“If you don’t have pencils or food, you won’t want to learn, so we [teachers] try and help to supply,” Juelke said. “We’re always meeting during lunch or working overtime to help our kids.”


ELL teachers are also able to take two classes, EDD1 and EDD2, after school through the Fargo school district to learn about cultural differences and how to best assist a student from another country. The optional classes provide teachers with basic information such as Arabic writing, Muslim standards, and possible background stories of students, so that teachers are able to help their students to the best of their abilities. ELL teachers also serve as the students’ caseworkers, and help mainstream teachers learn how to modify work and accommodate the students.

“Our goal is to work with their outside lives, to give them the opportunities they need to have a successful life after high school,” Juelke said.

ELL for adults

For some young New Americans, “after high school” begins as soon as they arrive. Sanders recalled a time that a young man, between 18 and 20 years old, came to America with his five siblings. Their parents had passed away and the boy had been the guardian of the children. When they lived in a refugee camp, he sent them to school and spent the day forging for food. When he came to America and realized that he was too behind in education to attend high school, he was crushed.

It’s a terribly sad case, Sanders said, but other times, refugees can come in as late as the age of 18 and still graduate depending on their birthday and how advanced in school that they are.

“You can be in high school until you’re 21,” Sanders said. “If you turn 21 during the school year, you can finish.”

If students are over 21, or over 17 and unable to enroll in high school because they are too far behind, they have to option to enroll in adult basic education classes, workforce classes or night classes.

Unlike high school courses, adult basic education classes are based around life skills and learning English. The majority of students who enroll are looking to improve their knowledge for better jobs. Moorhead Adult Basic Education Center is one option for adults looking at furthering their education.

The center is small. Currently, 189 students attend classes there, and 53 more are on a waiting list, according to Moorhead ABEC secretary Christy Revering. The center has continued to increase numbers in past year, partly due to secondhand refugees immigrating to North Dakota. Because of the waiting list, an 80 percent attendance policy is enforced. Next year, the center will relocate in July to the former Globe University building to service more students.

Every day, classes are held from 8:30-12:00 p.m. and 12:30-3:00 p.m. Tammy Schatz, director of Moorhead ABEC, said the majority of students attend classes in the morning or afternoon because they work or have children to tend to; very few of them attend classes all day long. Classes are available several evenings each week as well.

Adults take a standardized reading test before beginning classes. If they score 0-200, they are placed in a beginning ELL class; 201-220, intermediate; 221-235, advanced. Once they are at a 3rd grade level, they are moved to GED classroom. Every 40 hours of student teacher engagement results in a test that tells students if they are prepared to move up a level.

Preparing for the GED exams

In Rebecca Lee-Hunt’s classroom, students prepare for their GED exams. Large windows allow natural light to flood the room, and a handmade sign that says “Welcome teacher” hangs above her desk. Five students, most of whom are in their 30s and 40s, sit at the three tables that are pushed into a half-circle in the middle of the room.

Rebecca, a young, smiling woman, reads them a sentence. She speaks slowly and clearly.

“Physical borders between countries are physical features like rivers or mountain,” she says. She asks them to identify the noun and adjective.

The students take turns answering. One man gets the adjective, physical, correct right away. The noun takes a little longer for the students to find. Rebecca explains that the noun is what the adjective is describing.

Countries? Rivers? Mountains? The students are not afraid to voice their answers, even though they’re not correct.

“Borders!” says the man who knew the adjective.

Rebecca smiles and tells him he’s right. The class moves on to the next question.

Around the corner, another group of students are in a beginning ELL class. They mostly communicate in their native languages. Their teacher is trying to get them to take turns readings dialogue from a story, but the communication barrier makes it very difficult for them to understand who is supposed to read which character.

One female student in the class repeatedly tells her male peer that he’s supposed to read the part of Pierre.

“Pierre?” he asks.

“Yes!” she says.

He looks confused and starts to speak in his native language. After about five minutes of arguing with his female peer, each in his or her own native language, the teacher announces that she will read the part of Pierre.

Across the room, a teacher named Melissa Grosz shows pictures of mattresses on an iPad to four students at an intermediate ELL level. As her finger slides across the screen to scroll through photos, she explains that the large beds are king-sized, the medium ones are queen-sized and the small ones are twin-sized. She tells them that the mattress is the top part of the bed, not the spring or headboard, and explains what a reasonable price is for a mattress.

The students communicate in their native languages every once in a while, but speak English as much as they can. They repeat some of the words as Melissa says them.

“On-sale,” one woman says.

“King size is expensive,” another student says.

Throughout the center, students are in the hallways practicing different skills. Two women are doing a listening activity; nearby, another group is having a discussion, which makes it hard for the women to hear. One man sits at a table intensely studying a worksheet.

Schatz said she has never met students more eager to learn and excited to further their education than she has since working at Moorhead ABEC.

“Most of them are just so grateful for the opportunity.”

This piece was completed in for the Investigating and Narrating the News course where all students reported  on refugee issues and stories in Fargo-Moorhead.


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