“SLIFE” program accomodates influx of refugee students

At a public elementary school in Worcester, Friday morning began with typical announcements read over the intercom system, followed by the Pledge of Allegiance.

Some of the 37 students gathered in the school gymnasium struggled to say the pledge in unison, while others hardly knew it at all.

These children are not typical local Worcester students. This oversized class is led by a single teacher with two assisting tutors and has grown so large it had to be relocated from its designated room.

These 37 students come from all over the globe and are considered “SLIFE” students, literally meaning “Students with Limited or Interrupted Formal Education,” according to the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.  Basically, these students have either never had a formal education or cannot document any prior education in the past three years.

The program is not new to the Worcester area.  The New Citizens Center on Main Street has been educating refugee students and immigrants for years. However, this year, the demand for education outgrew the school and the NCC has relocated its program for grades 3-5.

Now, new citizens in grades 3-5 without formal education and limited knowledge of the English language are being placed in other Worcester Public Schools that the city’s students attend.

The lead teacher of this multi-cultured classroom said, “Most of them come from a traumatic background.  These kids can’t be thrown into regular classrooms because they wouldn’t be able to handle the material.  They wouldn’t survive because the fourth-graders in this class are learning kindergarten stuff.  They don’t know the language or the content.”

The NCC began by fostering refugees and immigrants in grades 3-12, but after the NCC’s school grew too large, other public primary schools in Worcester began taking in elementary students who would have attended school at the NCC. Teachers of the class said this extension of the program is still run by the NCC but, as of this year, has been implemented in other Worcester Public Schools. The NCC currently only offers classes for grades 7-12 at their original location on Main Street.

The students in the elementary program come from all over – Iraq, Egypt, Tanzania, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Somalia, Nepal, Turkey, and many other African, Asian, South American and Middle Eastern countries, and sit side-by-side each morning as they practice their math facts.

The problem is the school these students have been moved to can hardly handle them either. Although the program currently inhabits the gymnasium, it began in a classroom. New students join the class every couple of weeks, leaving the class in constant flux. When the school continued receiving new students, the class eventually outgrew the room and had to be moved into the much larger gymnasium.

Most of the students are under the age of 12, although teachers say they can’t be entirely sure of their ages because some of their students come to the states with little and sometimes false documentation. When paperwork fails, the lead teacher of the class said that she has to rely on the condition her student’s teeth to identify their age.

When asked about life before living in Worcester, some of the students suddenly became silent.  One 10-year-old refugee said, “People were fighting. I like it better here.”

Another student, only 9 years old, talked about the violence she encountered at her pervious school in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, saying her teacher there would often use physical discipline in the classroom.

Although these students are very focused on learning English, most of them can already speak three or four other languages such as French, Swahili, Arabic and Spanish, to name a few.  One would assume that this language barrier poses as a major constriction on communication, but teachers in the class hardly view it that way. 

As a global traveler, the class’s lead teacher practices lots of on non-verbal communication and said she has an easy time relating to her students because of prior travel and experience. When asked specifically about the language barrier she said, “Honestly? I don’t even think about it. If you’ve ever lived in a foreign country and you don’t speak that language, then you already have a complete and total understanding of these kids.”

According to teachers of the class, many parents face the same language barrier that their children hope to tear down.  Faculty said newsletters and information sent home must be written in more than five different languages.

A major problem with the program is its location. For a lot of these students, the school they are placed in is not considered their neighborhood school. NCC students, grades 3-5, are bused from all over the city to the only existing school that will meet their needs as “slife” students.

Busing children from all over the city to one location limits the involvement of their parents. One of the class tutors commented, “When we have a dance or a school-wide event, the parents don’t show up because they don’t have cars. I believe that if they had cars, they would be more present.”

Despite the obvious issues that come with the first trial of relocating a program like this, it seems to be a great success. Because the program is now in an operating public school, rather than the NCC building, students can move throughout the school as their learning increases.

The lead teacher of this class was proud to report that some of the children who have been a part of the program since the beginning of the school year have become much more comfortable speaking English and now go to regular math and science classes with their local Worcester peers. Having a program like this in a working school makes the transition from a “slife” classroom to a typical class much easier because when the students are ready they can simply walk down the hall instead of having to change schools entirely.

“Slife” students also have recess and lunch with the rest of the school, making social integration much more fluid.

Although the class has yet to be impacted by the recent Syrian refugee crisis, teachers anticipate the possible arrival of refugees from Syria and other affected areas as soon as this upcoming school year. Based on the growth already seen in this first year, coupled with current social conflict, teachers said, “The refugees aren’t going away. They’re doubling and tripling.  We can’t keep up.”

Going above and beyond for her students, the lead teacher of this class pours her energy into trying to make school enjoyable for these first-time students. She has personally bought lots of supplies for her students and has even arranged for a professional counselor to volunteer once a week with these refugees. She has also brought in therapy dogs for her students to connect with, helped organize ongoing and self-sufficient soccer camps for students on the weekends and recruited several retired elementary teachers to volunteer their time helping in the classroom.

With a growing demand for this program that only seems to be escalating, teachers for the program are lacking because of extra certifications required of staff. The only current teacher in the classroom said, “For this job you have to have two teaching licenses [one in ESL and another in elementary education] which makes it difficult to find teachers. College students interested in education should really consider coming out of school with two different licenses because this is growing. ‘Slife’ is growing.”

The lack of staff left one of the two tutors in the classroom saying of the program, “It would be a great success if we just had a little more help.”

Other school districts, including Brockton, have become interested in the performance and success of this program and have begun visiting the existing program in hopes of expanding it to new and different locations.

As the influx of students hoping to attend the NCC on Main Street increases, the organization will likely have to maintain expansion by continuing to place refugees in local public schools, as it has already begun doing this year.

The school plans to move this program into two different classrooms for the next school year, allowing the gym to be vacant and used for its original purpose. If class sizes continue to grow rapidly, however, “slife” students may find themselves and their desks back underneath the familiar basketball hoops.

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