As the Trump administration continues to reduce the number of refugees the U.S. will admit each year, our leaders should look to Ohio for examples of how states should welcome and resettle refugees. With strong initiatives in refugee job training and unprecedented support for immigrant-owned businesses, it’s no surprise that Ohio has been successful in helping refugees make the state their home. In fact, aside from Texas and Washington, Ohio resettled more refugees than any other state in 2018.
Access to a high-quality education is also a key factor that determines whether refugees can succeed in the United States. A good education is one of the only ways refugee children can catch up. Its transformative impact moves them from the grip of trauma into the freedom of opportunity and success. Thanks to state policies that allow schools and educators to tailor curriculum to the needs of students, Ohio is leading the way in educational opportunities for vulnerable populations like refugees.
At the same time, unfortunately, traditional schooling models are failing refugee students. Many refugee children cannot read and write in their own language, not to mention in English. Consider the language barrier alone: Only about 60% of English language learners graduate from high school, while the national average is more than 80%. It is clear refugee students need more intensive language study to be academically proficient, but most public schools don’t provide this.
When given equal educational opportunities, refugee students reach the same economic outcomes as their native-born peers despite having significantly lower educational backgrounds, language skills and incomes. That’s why at Fugees Academy, a zero-tuition private school I opened for refugees in Columbus, we offer a personalized and innovative education that provides them with tools to change their trajectories.
Changing that trajectory is not easy. I’m reminded of one of my students, Joseph, whose family fled violence in Burundi. Like most of our students, Joseph arrived at our first Fugees campus in Atlanta with no formal education. He spent 10 hours a day on intensive English-language learning, academics and playing soccer. While he was in the classroom, our team helped his family navigate health care, employment and immigration challenges through our wraparound services. In 2017, Joseph won a scholarship to Barry University in Miami and became a member of Fugees Academy’s second graduating class. His path wasn’t easy, but today, Joseph is studying computer science and his trajectory looks nothing like it did when I met him.
Our schools are built on a foundation of civil society, and with the help of public and private support, we’ve been successful. But not all refugee kids can attend a Fugees Academy, and we want to help other educators, both public and private, better understand the needs and challenges of these communities. As zero-tuition, independent schools, we have the freedom to innovate and learn what works for our students, and believe all vulnerable students would be better off if government enabled more of these models.
Our teachers are trained to meet students where they are, which often means singing repetitive songs, practicing rhyming sounds and developing foundational number sense with 12-year-olds. For many students, explicit, multi-sensory phonics instruction within a language-rich environment is key to fluency in English. Students study English, math, art and music. Everyone participates in yoga and after-school tutoring and is part of a soccer team. We immerse students in the most structured, consistent and fair environment possible, with achievable standards for performance. The lessons we’ve learned over 15 years could serve thousands of kids across the country.
Some argue that private schools like Fugees shouldn’t receive public support at all, but even Albert Shanker, then-president of the American Federation of Teachers, endorsed the idea of charter schools in 1988, advocating for a series of innovation incubators that would allow teachers the freedom to find unique solutions for different types of students. With what we learned from charter schools, Shanker imagined building a stronger, more sustainable public education system.
It’s time our education system made good on this vision—for all students who are vulnerable or face challenges that only innovation can meet. They deserve a chance to change their trajectories, and we as parents, teachers and citizens can help them. There is much that I’d like to share with our public schools about what has worked for Fugees students and what could work for many students who need extra support. I welcome that conversation so that we can improve all schools for all children.
This piece originally appeared at The Columbus Dispatch
Luma Mufleh is a 2019 Civil Society Fellow at the Manhattan Institute. Mufleh is the inspirational founder and CEO of Fugees Family, Inc., the nation’s only school network dedicated to educating and empowering child survivors of war.
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