Wausau School District welcomes new refugee students

Finding Refuge
Published: Jan. 13, 2022 at 5:02 PM CST
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WAUSAU, Wis. (WSAW) - After two weeks of being in their new homes, the children of the first two Afghan refugee families to arrive in central Wisconsin are beginning school.

“They’re very excited to be here. They’re very eager to learn and they’re very eager to become active members of our community.”

Chris Nyman, the director of learning and student achievement for the Wausau School District said he has been working closely with the resettlement agency, Ethiopian Community Development Council in Wausau, the families themselves, and contacting the safe-haven bases the families were hosted at to understand what level of education each child has. Nyman noted that the children had varying levels of disruption to their education both while in Afghanistan and while waiting at the safe havens.

“Even just between the two refugee families that have arrived up to this point, their experiences in getting here have been very different.”

He said the first thing they are determining is each child’s level of English proficiency so they can chart an educational path forward.

“We’re going into this with a very flexible mindset and certainly, our interest is to meet the needs of the students and give them exactly what they need to be successful.”

They have worked to secure the materials all children at the district receive, like tablets to access homework and school materials, especially for when school is conducted virtually due to weather, COVID-19, or other reasons.

While the children may have to be learning a new language, adjusting to a new culture, lifestyle, and home, the district, state, and federal educational standards will remain the same for refugee students.

“We just recognize that the scaffold and supports we might need to provide to get them there might be a little more intense, particularly at this initial transition stage,” Nyman noted.

Depending upon each student’s English proficiency, they will likely spend some class periods working with an English language teacher, but Nyman said the “most significant learning will take place in their regular classroom with English-speaking peers and the support of, perhaps, a paraprofessional in the instances where that seems appropriate.”

Refugee students also will not be segregated to one elementary, middle, or high school and instead be admitted to the appropriate school within the school boundary based on their home address. So, for example, an elementary school student who lives on the southeast side of Wausau will be enrolled at John Marshall Elementary School.

There are federal and state requirements schools have to meet to ensure English language learners have equal access to education. The U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of Education issue letters periodically that guide schools about how to comply with the legal requirements. Unnecessarily segregating English learning students is among those guidelines.

While Wausau has welcomed refugees after the Vietnam War, this admittance of refugees is more organized as there is now a resettlement agency in the city to manage cases locally. Nyman said their district is also much more prepared this time around.

“Prior to that, we didn’t necessarily even have English language teachers in all of our buildings, so that is a significant change -- what certainly is making this integration easier.”

The district is working to prepare all of its staff to welcome refugees, specifically Afghan refugees since that is the first population the resettlement agency will be receiving. They developed a quick reference guide for staff to help prepare them and their students about Afghan culture, and included a few school-related phrases in Dari, one of the primary languages from the Kabul area. Nyman said they are learning from other school districts, like Milwaukee, Green Bay, and Appleton which welcome refugee students regularly. Nyman said they recently became aware of grant opportunities to help support their current program for refugees.

“We’re really prepared to provide them with supports that they need so that their children can be successful and they really can have the lives that they’ve hoped for by moving to the United States and settling here in Wausau.”

Nyman recalled that the parents of the children are very interested in advancing their education. They will be offered the same opportunities as other students in the district to access additional educational opportunities, like summer school. He said the families have been good self-advocates for teaching the people they meet about Afghan cultural norms, so people should feel comfortable asking questions; that goes for students and adults who may meet them at school or in the community. He said they are just as interested in learning about American culture.

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