Eleventh-grader My-Linh Thai sat with her guidance counselor at Federal Way High, Vietnamese-English dictionary in her bag. “I want to go to the University of Washington and become a doctor,” she said.

“That’s not possible,” the counselor said. 

Thai had entered the state school system near the end of 10th grade, part of a wave of Southeast Asian refugees who came to Washington between 1975 and the early 1980s. She didn’t know English, and although Thai was at the top of her class in her home country, her small town had no library, the school was so crowded it had to take kids in shifts, and the power cut out at 6 o’clock.

Now she was an English-language learner who couldn’t stay after school for tutoring because she had to work. The culture shock was like plunging into an ice bath on a steamy day. Kids called teachers by their first names!

Still, Thai dreamed of being a doctor. She asked the counselor to write down exactly what she needed to do to graduate and go to university.  

“I completed everything on that list,” Thai said. “It was possible.”   

It’s hard to feel hopeful right now as we read terrifying stories about the amount of learning students might be losing during the pandemic, and it’s doubly crushing when we know how incredibly hard teachers, parents and children are working.

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Even so, educators who work with refugee students say children who come to this country at a disadvantage in every way — recovering from trauma, struggling to parse a new language, behind academically — can catch up to their peers and even excel, if they’re given the right support. That bodes well for the millions of children who have been left behind by COVID-19. 

More on the COVID-19 pandemic

“In our work, we have to be relentlessly optimistic,” said David Song, director of Seattle’s Kandelia, the immigrant/refugee group formerly known as the Vietnamese Friendship Association, whose youth programs are based at Seattle Public Schools’ World School.

In the years since Thai figured out how to succeed on her own, a network of educators has created immigrant-focused schools to help students make up for lost schooling and recover from trauma — and all while learning a new language.

“Newcomer” schools, like Seattle World School, are devoted to serving refugees and immigrants. And their expertise holds lessons for everyone when students finally come back to the classroom. 

COVID-19 has, in a way, turned all schools into newcomer schools.

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Not every student in newcomer schools lags academically or went through trauma, but many have. John Starkey, principal of Lafayette International High in Buffalo, N.Y., has students who grew up in refugee camps, and Tibetan teens whose previous education took place in classrooms of 100. He still berates himself for the day he reprimanded a student for being disengaged — only to learn that the young man’s school in Aleppo, Syria, had been destroyed by a bomb while he and his friends were still inside.

Brain research shows that trauma can interrupt learning and communication skills. “People say, ‘How can they make it with all these risk factors?’ ” Starkey said. But “they can. It’s just contingent on us re-evaluating and revamping the whole system.”

Data show newcomer schools are a success. Across the Internationals Network’s 28 schools, which include Lafayette International, 70% of students graduate in four years, a five-point improvement over the national average for English-language learners (ELL), executive director Joe Luft said. It’s 73% at the network’s New York City schools, where the average for ELL students is only 41%. The Learning Policy Institute praised the network’s “integrated and rigorous approach,” and said that its New York City schools’ college acceptance and matriculation rates were also above average.

Here’s advice from these experts on how schools can manage the aftermath of COVID-19.

Meet students’ needs holistically

Struggling in school makes kids feel bad about themselves. And catching up while recovering from disruption is a lot of work. So students have to feel loved, and be supported in both emotional and tangible ways.

If you expect a child to learn, you have to make sure “that they’re fed, that they have a roof over their heads. You can’t have one without the other,” said Kandelia community engagement manager Sieng Douangdala. Such work requires connecting with community partners. “It takes a village, to be honest.” 

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Lafayette International focuses first on food, housing, safety. Every staffer doubles as an investigative social worker to figure out what’s missing at home. 

Then there are emotional needs. Refugee/immigrant schools work overtime to make students and families feel like they belong. Internationals Network students “will often talk about their school as a family,” Luft said. That’s by design. Small, interdisciplinary teams of teachers share a common group of students and meet to discuss their needs.

When there’s not a pandemic, Kandelia offers a full array of Saturday sessions, both academic and recreational, with offerings for parents as well. On those Saturdays, Kandelia spins the globe to pick the food: tamales, egg rolls, Somali sambusas. The celebration of students’ cultures “makes them feel comfortable in a way that — wow, I’m not going through this alone,” Douangdala said. They don’t feel “so invisible or so misunderstood.”

“It’s got to start with the healing,” Starkey said. The point is “to get them to start believing in themselves, to have a little hope.”

That rich support was on display at a December-morning Lafayette English class that Starkey visited. First he encouraged students to turn on their cameras, cajoling, “No one has as bad of a hair day as me!” (He’s bald.) More seriously, he said, “It doesn’t matter what’s on the outside or what’s in the background … it’s about what’s on the inside, in your heart.” 

He reminded them of their strength: how flexible they were, moving to a new culture, learning new languages, now dealing with COVID: “Not everybody would survive all of that.” Afterward, teacher Dana Kemp led a breathing exercise, saying, “We want to trust our instincts and trust our guts.” Only then did the class turn to 19th-century poetry.     

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Rethink the curriculum

Newcomer schools can’t give kids six months of English before they start studying chemistry. They can’t stop and teach students all the U.S. history they never learned, or the math they didn’t get in their previous country.

When a student enters the U.S., they pick up in the grade they left off. Even if a Kenya refugee camp’s 10th-grade work corresponds to Buffalo’s eighth grade, that kid’s a sophomore.

And “there’s only so much time in the day,” Luft said. “You have to figure out some way to accelerate.”

The similarities to COVID-19 learning loss are obvious. The Council of the Great City Schools, a coalition of the nation’s 76 largest urban public school systems (including Seattle), is recommending that schools “stick to grade-level content” rather than stopping to backfill. Educators should fill in gaps along the way, via small groups or individual tutoring, when it becomes clear that a student missed something that they need to solve the problem of the day.

“Because it is inadvisable (and impossible) to try to teach every missed concept all at once, it is necessary to prioritize the concepts and skills that are of immediate importance in helping students access grade-level work,” the Council wrote.

If a student has missed 25 assignments, clearly something is wrong, and schools need to switch gears, Starkey said, not “just be encouraging it and hoping it happens.” Instead, he said, zero in on the key outcomes and the learning standards, and figure out a way for students to learn that material and show their knowledge. 

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For example: Can a student make a tourism pamphlet for Indus Valley civilizations rather than complete 10 homework packets? Otherwise schools risk writing students off — and having them just give up, because they’re so far behind on assignments there’s no way they’ll be able to pass the year.   

Such condensing and acceleration requires schools to think differently about education. That extends to assessments and accountability.

Hold a holistic view of education

School needs to be focused on helping students get that college degree or job certification, not about passing tests. That means designing different ways to measure learning.

“This is a group that is unique and requires a unique approach,” Starkey said. He considers relying on standardized tests “antiquated,” and advocates portfolio evaluation instead. Lafayette International students embark on projects and defend them like dissertations as teachers pepper them with questions. Those projects let students work from where they are and draw on their multiculturalism as a strength, instead of focusing on what’s lacking.

Ironically, pretty much all schools went this route during COVID, as states canceled spring standardized testing. Lafayette International’s graduation rate went up by close to 20 percentage points, to 83%. 

Judging newcomer students by the standard metrics — such as the standard graduation rate, which measures the percentage of students finishing in four years — doesn’t make sense, Starkey argues. “We have some students who need a fifth year or a sixth year,” Luft said.

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Along with stigma, there are institutional barriers. One of the biggest problems that newcomer high schools face is the clash between graduation tests and the end date of public education. What runs out for students is not mental capacity, it’s time. 

Washington and New York, like most states, provide public education only up to age 21. An 18- or 19-year-old who has already failed 10th-grade tests knows that “time is ticking for them to age out of school,” and they probably won’t make it, Starkey said. They may decide instead to get a menial job to help support their family.

Some students don’t have the skills to make it academically, but also don’t qualify for special education, Starkey said. It’s a tough hand. “They try and they try and they try. We struggle to meet their needs … In a lot of schools they’re just written off.”

Maybe allowing alternative assessments and lifting time requirements will make sense for all students, at least for a while post-COVID, because returning from the pandemic is going to be rough. 

Schools need a re-entry plan, Luft said — one where expectations are high but humane. “You’re not going to be able to double the amount of learning next year,” he said. “I’m reluctant to say you can’t make that up … [but] what’s your expectation about how quickly that can happen?”

He’s concerned especially because national data show that COVID-19 learning losses are more severe among majority-minority and low-income students. McKinsey predicts that students of color will have lost 11 to 12 months of learning by June, and white students five months or more. Worse, “this could be just the beginning,” McKinsey analysts wrote. “Learning losses are likely to compound over time.” 

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Rather than just tell everyone to work harder and faster, Luft hopes that schools will address the underlying reasons that some students — particularly those who are not white, affluent, nondisabled and native English speakers — are behind.

The pandemic as ‘a small setback’ 

“I don’t think there’s any permanent loss in our students. I see only potential,” Song said.

Thai shares that belief. The Vietnamese refugee who went to school in Federal Way thinks that even with the pandemic, children can succeed. 

The extra stress over students falling behind comes from adults, she said: “We expect them to learn math and science and English the same way [as] in normal times, and this is nowhere near normal.”

At college, she connected with fellow Vietnamese refugees, got involved in social justice activism and decided to go to pharmacy school instead of medical school. She became a medical interpreter, Bellevue School Board director and, in 2018, the first refugee elected to the state House of Representatives. Her two college-age children learned from home this fall, online, like millions of others. At the end of their school day, she brings them cups of tea. 

“I think our kids are amazing,” she said. “We need to give them hope. We need to tell them that this is a small setback and you’re not alone. In fact, the entire world is with us.”

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She added, “Oh my God, if anything, I would hope that by the time we get out of this, we would pat ourselves on the back and … celebrate all the overcoming and becoming.”  

This story was produced with support from the Education Writers Association Reporting Fellowship program.

Danielle Dreilinger is an education journalist based in New Orleans. Her book The Secret History of Home Economics: How Trailblazing Women Harnessed the Power of Home and Changed the Way We Live comes out in May 2021.

(Jennifer Luxton / The Seattle Times)

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