Syrian refugees adjust to U.S. schools

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Samah Hussein, 13, and Abdulraheem Qadour, 11, study English on their laptops at Cajon Valley Middle School. Photo: Christine Armario/AP

Now a student at a suburban San Diego middle school, 12-year-old Abdulhamid Ashehneh thinks about his father, who vanished four years ago, writes Christine Armario for AP.  “Months later, Abdulhamid’s mother boarded a bus with her six children, the youngest 2, and fled to Jordan, the sound of bombs ringing in the distance.”

Cajon Valley Middle School enrolled 76 new Syrian refugees when school started this fall.

In addition to limited English and lost years of schooling, the Syrian children “have seen some pretty nasty stuff,” said Eyal Bergman, a family and community engagement officer for the Cajon Valley Union School District. “But I also see incredible resilience.”

Some refugee students are enrolled in “newcomer” classes where they are provided intense English instruction before being placed in mainstream classrooms. Others go directly into classes with English-fluent peers but are assigned to smaller groups for individual instruction. Teachers are trained in identifying trauma, and on-site counselors help students who need extra attention.

. . . At night, Arabic-speaking staff and teachers hold a “parent academy” where newly arrived moms and dads are given bilingual children’s books in English and Arabic and guided on how to help improve literacy at home.

In the 1970s, Chaldean Christians fleeing persecution in Iraq found their way to El Cajon, which is 15 miles east of San Diego. “Those earlier, now established waves of migrants are playing a role in helping settle the new arrivals from Syria,” writes Armario.

Palestinian honoree teaches through play

A Palestinian teacher’s play-based methods have won her a $1 million global education prize, reports Diaa Hadid in the New York Times.  The Varkey Foundation chose Hanan Hroub for developing educational games for children traumatized by violence.

When a reporter visited her West Bank classroom, “second-grade students were not focusing on their assigned task of scrawling math problems on balloons,” writes Hadid. “They were popping those balloons.”

The teacher put four marks underneath a frowning yellow face.

“No, Miss! No! We will concentrate, we promise!” piped up a girl named Shurouq. Ms. Hroub and her charges discussed why they felt distracted, and promised to do better.

Not all is fun and games, reports Hadid. “Some Israelis have denounced her as part of a Palestinian education system they see as inciting violence, and noted with dismay that her husband assisted in the killing of six Jewish settlers in the West Bank city of Hebron in 1980.”

D.C. boarding school serves traumatized kids

Monument founder and CEO Emily Bloomfield (brown jacket) joins a chair yoga exercise. 

A new public boarding school in Washington, D.C. is trying to serve children who’ve suffered trauma, violence,  family disintegration and homelessness, writes Erin Einhorn on the Hechinger Report.

Forty fifth graders started in August at Monument Academy. They live at the school from Sunday to Friday evening.

“Students as old as 12 are reading at a kindergarten or first-grade level or exhibiting behaviors like thumb-sucking,” writes Einhorn.

Monument, which hopes to house and educate children in grades five through 12, has hired as many therapists as teachers. Yoga and meditation and part of the curriculum.

There’s a risk in concentrating troubled children, concedes Marlene Magrino, the principal. But Monument will teach social and emotional skills explicitly, offer therapy to every child and have very small classes.

A few months after opening, the school still is struggling with behavior issues.

Recently in a science and math class, two teachers spent the first 30 minutes trying to settle the class as one girl wrote on her arm, another pulled her desk down into her lap, a third shoved construction paper cards she’d made for her boyfriend under the door into the hallway and a fourth stood on a sofa doing a dance move that resembled twerking.

The teachers refused to start class until every student — they were all girls since the school is experimenting with separating sexes in most classrooms to reduce conflicts — had written an apology to a reporter and an administrator who were watching the class.

One student apologized “for acting like im a animal,” spelling that last word “anmial,” and decorating the note with a picture of a dog.

Magrino sees improvement. A boy swore at her, but controlled his anger without knocking over furniture.

The model costs about $48,000 per student per year.

Refugees ‘torn between two worlds’

Students leaving Patterson High at the end of a spring day include, starting fourth from left, Nadifa Idriss, Mona Al halabi, Manuel Maurizaca and Fayza Al halabi. Credit: Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun

At Baltimore’s Patterson High, 370 of 1,100 students are immigrants, including refugees from the Middle East, Africa and Central America. The number has tripled in the past two years, reports Liz Bowie in the Baltimore Sun in part 1 of Unsettled Journeys.

Many of these students “came to escape war, gang violence and starvation,” reports Bowie.

At the Hispanic Psychiatric Clinic at Johns Hopkins Hospital, Donna Fallon Batkis is treating young immigrants who’ve survived kidnappings and rape, “not just rape of women, but sexual abuse of men.”

Reema and Ahmed Alfaheed look at videos of the refugee camp near Iraq-Syria border, where they lived for six years after fleeing Baghdad. Credit: Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun

Reema and Ahmed Alfaheed look at videos of the refugee camp near the Iraq-Syria border, where they lived for six years. Credit: Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun

Thanks to modern technology, students can stay in touch with loved ones  — or watch a beheading in their home country.

Narmin Al Eethawi’s father was kidnapped and tortured in Baghdad. Four uncles were killed.

Her “phone buzzed with Facebook text messages throughout her day with snippets of news from Iraq,” writes Bowie. Her sister is there — and Mustafa, who wants her to return to marry him. “When she got lost in Baltimore and didn’t know what to do, she called 22-year-old Mustafa to help her with directions.”

Even amid the tranquillity of a soccer field, Reema Alfaheed, one of Narmin’s best friends, couldn’t escape. She was on the phone with a friend, a boy in Syria, who was lamenting that, because of the war, he couldn’t play soccer or go to school. Then Reema heard an explosion and people screaming. The phone went dead.

Three days later, she learned her friend had survived the bombing, but was left with a head injury and broken leg.

At his retirement party, Tom Smith, who taught English as a Second Language, encouraged Narmin to break off the relationship with Mustafa and commit to living in America.

Her father, a truck driver, was earning enough for the family to buy a house. Her mother was learning English at community college. Narmin got a summer job at a diner — and a learner’s permit.

By the start of senior year, Narmin “still struggled with English, and anatomy and physiology was a challenge, but she was earning top grades,” writes Bowie. “She wanted a career in medicine.”

She’d decided not to return to Iraq.

Part two focuses on Central American immigrants. Many are here illegally. Exel Estrada, 17, now reunited with his mother after years of fending for himself in Guatemala, works a swing shift as a janitor. “His homework had to wait for the moments he could fit it in: the bus ride to school, a 20-minute free period, lunch or a slow moment during class.”

‘Trauma-sensitive’ approach cuts suspensions

“Trauma-sensitive” schools are suspending less and graduating more, writes Hechinger’s Meredith Kolodner in the Washington Monthly.

When a sophomore screamed and swore at his English teacher at New Haven’s Metropolitan Business Academy,  Principal Judith Puglisi asked,“What do you need?”

After she quietly repeated her question close to a dozen times, he turned to her and said, “I need to come to your office.” There, Puglisi and the assistant principal listened to him shout until he began to cry, telling them that his stepfather had beaten him since he was 7. “I am sick of people calling me a loser,” he said.

The student met with a drama therapist trained in trauma at Metropolitan the next day, then apologized to the teacher and returned to class.

Metropolitan and a dozen other schools in Connecticut work with Animated Learning by Integrating and Validating Experience (ALIVE), which provides drama therapists to “identify trauma, prevent problems from escalating and respond effectively when students do act out,” writes Kolodner.

Metropolitan’s team now includes a school social worker, six social work interns and three part-time drama therapists from ALIVE.

Over the past three years, the school’s suspension rate has dropped by two-thirds to 3 percent. Fights are way down.  The graduation rate rose to 90 percent in 2014 and 70 percent of graduates enroll in college.

All ninth-graders take a course that deals with issues such as homelessness, gun violence and drug addiction.

One freshman class on a snowy March afternoon began with a happy celebration of a student’s birthday, but then took a darker turn. The group of 20 usually boisterous freshmen sat silently for 15 minutes as the birthday girl, encouraged by her teacher, related why she almost didn’t come to school that morning. “My mom told me she never wanted me,” the girl said, looking at the floor, determined not to cry. “She said what she always says. That I’m kinda worthless. A waste of space.”

Just cutting suspensions and expulsions isn’t enough, says Susan F. Colege, who directs the Trauma and Learning Policy Initiative at Massachusetts Advocates for Children. Schools must “create a place where students feel safe enough to learn.”

Trigger warning contest

“Trigger warnings” on syllabi — this book may be upsetting — are the latest campus fad, the New York Times reports.

Students want to be forewarned that Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice deals with anti-Semitism or that Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway addresses a combat veteran’s suicide. Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby includes “a variety of scenes that reference gory, abusive and misogynistic violence,” a Rutgers student writes.

The National Association of Scholars has announced a Trigger Warning ContestWhat should readers be warned about before reading, say, Hamlet, The Republic, Anne of Green Gables, or The Wind in the Willows? Or the classic of your choice.

Readers can submit entries on Twitter, including NAS’s handle and the hashtag #triggerwarningfail.


The Iliad: warning – disturbing scene for those suffering sports injuries. #triggerwarningfail @NASorg

Oedipus Rex: warning – prejudicial treatment of alternative family structures. #triggerwarningfail @NASorg

Gulliver’s Travels: warning – size-ist. #triggerwarningfail @NASorg

The top three trigger warnings will be announced on Friday. Each submitter in the top three will receive a copy of NAS president Peter Wood’s book,  A Bee in the Mouth: Anger in America Now (warning: not recommended for the apiphobic).

Teaching the traumatized child

“A great many students come to school with emotional and behavioral difficulties that pose serious barriers to their learning,” writes David Bornstein in the New York Times. More than 20 percent of Spokane elementary students had two or more “adverse childhood experiences,” such as homelessness, witnessing domestic violence or having a parent on drugs or in jail, according to a Washington State study.

Some schools are trying to help students deal with stress. Angelo Elementary School in Brockton, Massachusetts is training teachers and reorganizing classrooms.

“We created choices in the classroom for kids if they felt their emotions were starting to get the best of them,” (Principal Ryan) Powers said. “They could put on headphones, listen to some classical music, sit on a bean bag chair, take a break, go for a walk.”

Teachers started paying more attention to the way they spoke to children. They began the day by greeting every child — by name or a handshake or a touch on the shoulder. They made the first morning session to be about about community building. They made efforts to reduce the number of transitions and communicate clearly, so changes would be predictable.

Stress is very bad for learning. “When you come from a home that is very disorganized, sequence and cause and effect can be thrown off,” explained  Susan Cole, a former special education teacher who directs the Trauma and Learning Policy Initiative. “This affects language development, memory and concentration.”

Teaching, trauma and Tamerlan

Trauma is part of the job for many community college instructors, writes Wick Sloane, who teaches writing at Bunker Hill Community College in Boston. He suffered “secondary trauma” after one of his students was murdered in 2007 for no known reason. Another student in the same College Writing I class: Tamerlan Tsarnaev. He cut frequently, e-mailed some excuses, then dropped out.

Lawyer withdraws Newtown suit — for now

That $100 million lawsuit claiming Connecticut failed to protect Sandy Hook Elementary students has been withdrawn, but could be refiled.

“I received new evidence on security at the school, which I need to evaluate,” (lawyer Irving) Pinsky said Monday.

The suit was filed in the name of “Jill Doe,” a six-year-old girl who survived the massacre but allegedly was traumatized by hearing screams, cursing and gunshots on the intercom. Pinsky said the suit’s goal was to improve school safety, not to make money. Of course.

The Sandy Hook lawsuits begin

Twenty children and six adults were gunned down at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Now the parents of a 6-year-old survivor are suing the school for $100 million because their child heard “cursing, screaming, and shooting” over the school intercom. “As a consequence, the … child has sustained emotional and psychological trauma and injury, the nature and extent of which are yet to be determined,” the claim said.

Why should the school be held responsible? asks Jazz Shaw on Hot Air.

The lawsuit claims the children were not protected from “foreseeable harm” because officials had failed to provide a “safe school setting” or design “an effective student safety emergency response plan and protocol.”

Sandy Hook Elementary’s doors were locked, writes Doug Mataconis, a lawyer, on Outside the Beltway. Adam Lanza shot his way in.

. . . teachers and aides did everything they could to evacuate the building or get the children into areas where they’d be hidden and safe. One teacher lost her life protecting her children from Lanza’s murderous spree. What, exactly, is it that this family asserts the school could have reasonably done differently? Perhaps they need to count their blessings, be glad their child is safe, and stop looking for a pot of gold out of this horrible tragedy.

I agree. Sandy Hook had a reasonable level of security for an elementary school — everything but armed guards. We can’t foresee and prevent every possible horror.

Here are the names of Adam Lanza’s victims.