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California Schools Prepare for Thousands of Afghan Refugee Students

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People sit at tables in a classroom with laptops looking at a presentation projected on a wall.
Afghan refugee students and their families learn about applying for asylum during a family night at Mira Loma High School in Sacramento in August 2021. (Courtesy of San Juan Unified School District)

In California, home to the largest number of Afghan refugees in the country, school officials are preparing for an influx of students who fled Afghanistan with their families after the Taliban seized power in the country last month.

Schools are especially busy in Sacramento and Fremont, which have two of the largest Afghan communities in the state. Over 40% of the nation’s Afghan refugees have resettled in the Sacramento region in recent years, according to Jessie Tientcheu, chief executive officer of Opening Doors, a resettlement agency based in Sacramento.

Elk Grove Unified School District began offering culturally appropriate meals and setting aside rooms in many of its middle and high schools for prayer during Muslim holidays in preparation for the additional Afghan students it expects in the next month. San Juan Unified is offering Saturday school for English learners, and Fremont Unified is planning to hire more translators.

Sacramento school officials have been meeting weekly with representatives from resettlement agencies to prepare for the students. Resettlement agencies partner with the federal government to ensure refugees have food, clothing and housing, as well as medical and mental health services, among other things, for 90 days after their arrival in a city. After that, school districts often take on the role of liaison between the family and social service organizations, offering translators and guidance.

“We connect with them when their 90 days are over,” said Cristina Burkhart, program specialist with the refugee team at San Juan Unified. “We help them in any way we can. We help them make doctor appointments, or translate for them so they can build that capacity and advocate for themselves.”


Sacramento-area school officials have been told to expect about 1,200 new students from Afghanistan to enroll in area schools in the next few months, but the number was estimated before more than 100,000 Afghans were evacuated and could be higher, Tientcheu said.

So far, California school district officials interviewed by EdSource reported only a trickle of refugee enrollments, but Tientcheu says many of the families that have already arrived are completing required vaccinations and medical appointments before enrolling their children in school. Some are living in temporary housing and are waiting to move to permanent homes before starting school.

California school districts with Afghan student populations are offering wraparound services for refugee families, including dedicated staff to enroll students in school, language classes for parents and students, and translators to help explain schoolwork or make medical appointments. Districts also refer families to community resources that provide food, housing and medical care, among other services.

Elk Grove Unified, a district of 63,000 students in south Sacramento County, has about 2,000 student refugees from Afghanistan, said Lisa Levasseur, a program specialist in the district’s Family and Community Engagement Department. The number of students started increasing about four years ago. Now, the Afghan population is the fastest-growing ethnicity in the district, Levasseur said. She said the refugees are sometimes attracted to the Elk Grove area because it has larger apartments that allow extended families to live together.

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District services for Afghan refugees have increased with their numbers. The district has opened two welcome centers, but Levasseur would like to open two more. At the center, families can enroll students in school, get referrals for social services or find tutoring help. District staff also help parents find jobs and operate support groups for family members.

Elk Grove staff who are interested in learning more about the cultural differences the Afghan students will face can take classes provided by the district.

“We are expanding our programs and constantly learning what is needed,” Levasseur said. “I’m meeting tomorrow with an organization that runs after-school sports and focuses on social-emotional development for refugees.”

Levasseur would like to start a soccer program for newcomers, like the one in nearby San Juan Unified. The San Juan soccer program was originally created for refugee students to provide social-emotional support and help integrate them into the school district. It provides cleats, shin guards and balls for each player — equipment too expensive for most refugee families — and teaches them soccer skills and holds tournaments.

“Parents enjoyed it because the parents are on the sidelines and they are making friends,” Burkhart said. “They are communicating with other people, and they are cheering. They have to bring chairs. They are learning.”

The district limited the number of players to 300 refugees until this school year when a grant allowed the district to expand the program to all English learners. Now the soccer program, which was scheduled to start Sept. 16, is expected to have 800 players from eight schools. The teams will be divided into two leagues that will play one another in tournaments in October and December, Burkhart said.

San Juan Unified, a district of 57,000 students, has 3,000 refugee students from Afghanistan — half of its English learner population. Students who have immigrated from other countries sometimes transfer to San Juan Unified from other districts because it has 60 bilingual staff members, 11 translators and 12 community resource assistants, as well as 100 students who speak both their language and English who work as after-school tutors, Burkhart said.

The district has a robust program for English learners, including a Saturday academy. The program, held twice a year for six to eight weeks, includes language development, self-esteem training, lessons about American norms, physical fitness and sometimes art and music classes. The academy is currently held at four schools, but district officials would like to double that number, Burkhart said. The district also offers after-school programs, including programs on wellness and robotics, as well as summer school for students who are English learners.

School districts fund refugee or newcomer programs from a number of different sources. In San Juan Unified, the program is funded with federal Title I money for lower-income students and Title III money for English learners and immigrants. The district also has grants from the California Health and Human Services Agency and uses some of its state Local Control Funding Formula dollars.

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Once they come to an American school, Afghan students have to navigate American cultural norms, including, for example, unfamiliar dress in gym class.

Burkhart said one of the most difficult things to explain to the students and their parents is that attending school is required by law, that a school must be called when a child is going to be absent and students must stay on campus unless given permission to leave.

Ahmad Nimati, a school community refugee specialist on the team at San Juan, is one of the first people Afghan refugees see when they arrive at the San Juan Unified enrollment center. Nimati, an immigrant from Afghanistan, often translates for the families.

When the families arrive at the enrollment center, staff members give them welcome kits that include stationery, a backpack and other useful items, he said. They are offered tutoring, given the contact information for refugee support organizations and the link to a welcome video on YouTube.

Nimati said there are a lot of things for the students to get used to when they come to the United States. In Afghanistan, students attend school in three- to four-hour shifts and there are no libraries, cafeterias or gym classes, he said. Technology is scarce and there are no science or computer labs.

Members of the San Juan refugee team don’t just focus on the new students arriving. The team has spent evenings and weekends trying to contact the families of over two dozen students who were visiting relatives in Afghanistan when the Taliban took over. They are hoping to hear soon that they have been evacuated from the country.

Fremont Unified School District staff also have been working overtime to prepare for the new students. After school staff heard the news of the fall of the Afghan government, they immediately met to evaluate the services the district currently has for refugee students and to determine what types of services need to be added, said Christie Rocha, director of federal and state programs at the district.

Fremont has had a large Afghan population that goes back several generations, so an influx of refugees who want to move near family is expected, although officials at Fremont Unified aren’t certain how many will enroll.

The district offers a support group for newcomers, which provides them with language and academic support, as well as a curriculum to help them understand the norms in the United States. Every new arrival is given a picture dictionary in their primary language to help them learn English, as well as general school information and contact information for both their teacher and principal, Rocha said.

Fremont Unified has two social workers who help connect refugee families with food, housing and mental health services, among other things. A staff member who speaks Farsi acts as the liaison between the district and families. Rocha would like to be able to hire more translators who speak either Pashto or Dari, which also is called Farsi.

“We will welcome them with open arms,” Rocha said. “If they have any social-emotional, housing or basic necessity needs, we will connect them to the right resources.”

Los Angeles Unified, which has more than 600,000 students, can’t say how many Afghan refugee students have enrolled in the district so far, but it is prepared to offer any who come academic, health and social-emotional services, said Lydia Acosta Stephens, executive director of multilingual and multicultural education.

Afghan refugee students are part of what the district calls international newcomers. Coaches and counselors who work directly with students and their families are assigned to 18 schools with a high number of newcomers, Stephens said.

The We Are One L.A. Unified program offers immigrant families information in their language about the school district, its academic programs, their rights as parents and U.S. residents, health and wellness services and phone numbers for legal help. The district also has a summer program that focuses on language development for students who have been in the United States for two years or less. There is also a range of services on district campuses, including wellness centers and after-school programs, Stephens said.

“We try to have a safety net in every type of setting,” she said.


This article was originally published by EdSource.

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