More refugee funding under consideration for May revise

More refugee funding under consideration for May revise

(Calif.) School districts facing significant increases in the number of new refugee students could receive $5 million in one-time Proposition 98 funding under a proposal considered Tuesday by key legislative panel.

The recent influx of refugee resettlements in parts of San Diego, Sacramento and Los Angeles has strained school resources and left administrators occasionally scrambling to provide academic and social-emotional support services for students beyond those available for other English learners.

“Today, refugees make up nearly one in five students in our district,” Tamara Otero, vice president of the Cajon Valley Union School District school board, told members of the Assembly’s subcommittee of education finance. “We’ve had English learners in the Cajon Valley area for a very long time–about half of our students speak a language other than English at home–but I can tell you the students coming from war have a particular need beyond language.”

The Cajon Valley pre-K through grade eight district is home to seven schools and approximately 17,000 students. Otero said that many issues stem from trauma refugee children experienced prior to being resettled. She described young children fearfully crawling under desks when they hear the school bell, and 10-year-olds crying for weeks in front of their peers because being in school is the first time in their lives that they’ve been separated from their mothers.

Otero said that the Cajon Valley district would like to hire additional Arabic and Farsi speaking paraprofessional staff, counselors and translators, and improve professional development to help teachers better understand children who have experienced trauma.

Part of the challenge, however, is that many families are resettled after schools have already been allotted money for the number of refugee students counted in the California Longitudinal Pupil Achievement Data System. The system is used to track individual student demographic data and other information for state and federal reporting purposes.

“We’re doing what we can, but the truth is that refugee students have exceptional needs, and they arrive all throughout the year,” Otero told committee members. “This year we received over 850 newcomers since August–and hundreds of them arrived after submitting the CALPADS reporting data, which means hundreds of thousands of dollars from our own expenditures will go unfunded this year.”

California, Texas and New York resettled nearly a quarter of the nearly 85,000 refugees admitted into the U.S. in the 2016 fiscal year, according to the Pew Research Center. California alone took in more than 7,900–just over 1,000 of whom were resettled as part of the Obama administration’s efforts to relocate 10,000 people displaced by the war in Syria by the end of last September.

Pew researchers found that the highest number of refugees relocated to the U.S. last year came from the Democratic Republic of Congo, followed by Syria, Burma, Iraq and Somalia.

In order to help accommodate the academic and mental health needs of students from these countries, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Refugee Programs Bureau administers the Refugee School Impact grant. Districts can, among other things, use the funding to improve or expand English language instruction, interpreting and counseling services, or develop after-school tutoring programs focused on helping refugee students catch up academically.

California’s Department of Social Services received $1 million in federal funding under the program for the 2016-17 federal fiscal year, which refugee advocates and school officials agree isn’t enough to cover the costs of services to help these students.

“We’ve been fortunate to receive the Refugee School Impact Grant from the Department of Social Services, but the $128,000 grant we received this year barely scratches the surface of addressing the unique needs of this population,” said Donna O’Neil, associate superintendent of the San Juan Unified School District, located in Sacramento.

In addition to providing in-class supports, the district hosts a 10-week Saturday academy to help students catch up in school and aide in families’ transition into society by providing health and emotional supports, translation and interpretation services, after school programs and other activities.

“If the California budget is able to include additional funding for refugee services, it would be a significant help to the families we serve now, and those we’ll serve in the future,” O’Neil said.

Members of the Assembly budget subcommittee on education finance didn’t take a vote on the funding proposal Tuesday, but committee chair Kevin McCarty, D-Sacramento, and Jose Medina, D-Riverside, voiced their support. Assemblyman Randy Voepel, R-Santee, called educating refugee children a non-partisan issue and announced he would support the proposal to add $5 million in one-time Proposition 98 to the May revision of the state budget as well.