After the school bell rings, 135 kids from 16 countries file into an after-school program run by New American Pathways.
They come from places as diverse as Bhutan, Burma, Eritrea, Congo and the Middle East.
Not only do they need to learn English, but some may have had little formal schooling. Many have had education interrupted by war and long stays in refugee camps. Now they find themselves in an American public school.
“Helping them get onto grade level and go on to the next is a very big challenge,” said Peter Epstein, education and youth program manager at New American Pathways, a refugee resettlement organization in DeKalb County, Georgia.
An innovative parental engagement strategy helps this after-school program succeed.
Known as Bright Futures, the organization’s after-school program is located at three sites: two elementary schools and a middle school in DeKalb County.
The agency has parent liaisons on staff who speak the language of each student. To engage kids, parent liaisons go to the family’s home and describe the after-school program so parents understand it.
They also talk to parents about the family’s needs, whether it’s a need for child care so the parent can go to work or other issues. Then they refer the parents to sources for assistance.
Parent liaisons also discuss homework and often talk to the teachers about the children. They sit in with parents at parent-teacher conferences and serve as interpreters when needed.
“We have a very close link to the schools where we work,” Epstein said.
Parent liaisons also hold orientations for the school staff, generally at the beginning of the school year, letting teachers know where the new kids are from and providing information about their culture. Teachers learn, for example, about the major holidays the child’s family celebrates and customs around clothing and food.
Helping the kids learn to speak, read and write English is crucial to their schooling.
Bright Futures provides targeted academic support that starts with an initial test for reading level. It uses a customized literacy curriculum for English language learners and provides targeted one-on-one support.
The program has 21 staff members, including an Americorps volunteer each day. Community volunteers, including local college students, also come in to assist.
Literacy activities include art and projects such as book-making. Kids write biographical poems that help them express who they are.
At the end of the 2013-14 school year, 100 percent of the middle school students had increased at least one letter grade in English, and 97 percent were promoted to the next grade, Epstein said.
At the end of the 2014-15 school year, the elementary school kids had increased an average of 2.9 reading levels, while the middle school kids increased an average of 2.7 reading levels, he said.
The program also focuses on social skills, so the kids are able to socialize with others and become better able to participate in class.
As they learn English, they’re learning about other kids from the other cultures, Epstein said.
New American Pathways resettles about 500 refugees per year, most in DeKalb County, Georgia. It was formed in 2014 through the merger of Refugee Resettlement and Immigration Services of Atlanta and Refugee Family Services.
“People say our program is really unique because it’s a kaleidoscope of different cultures,” he said.
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