Refugees place big burden on schools

GREELEY – Born in a Kenyan refugee camp, Asha Abdi spoke no English when she arrived to the U.S. more than five years ago. Today, she’s fluent, thanks to her own desire to learn and the work of her teachers at Weld County’s School District 6.

A senior at Greeley West High School, Abdi is a Somali and, although she is thousands of miles from her homeland, she is far from alone. The 17-year-old is one of 434 refugee students who attend schools in the district. Her two sisters and a brother are among them, part of an immigrant population that includes thousands more students who speak dozens of different languages. More than a quarter of District 6 students are learning English as a second language.

Like Asha and her siblings, many are the children of parents drawn to Weld County by jobs at one of Northern Colorado’s largest employers, JBS USA in Greeley.

Their swelling ranks have helped to create one of the more diverse student bodies in Colorado. But there’s a high cost associated with educating these children, an expense that is fast becoming an unmanageable burden for District 6, leaving it with fewer dollars for other programs.

Teacher salaries and specialized training, even school supplies for children in families struggling to establish themselves in their new homes, are all consuming more of the district’s budget. Many of these students have never held a pencil, let alone attended school.

Faced with shrinking funding from the state and federal government, District 6 is now looking for help from the very source of its problem: JBS itself.

Schools across the country receive all manner of grants, donations and gifts from the corporations that do business in their communities. JBS has done the same, though its contributions have so far been nominal.

Nancy Matchett, an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Northern Colorado and director of the Institute of Professional Ethics, thinks District 6 has a good case to make.

“They have a kind of duty of charity to give to the school districts,” she said of JBS. “They are primarily responsible for this large influx (of refugees) that places a burden on the local school system. We don’t have a political system that is set up in such a way to absorb those costs.”

JBS officials are fully aware of the problem, telling the Greeley Tribune in November that the company wants to do more to be a better neighbor. Don Jackson, CEO of JBS USA, said the company hoped that the tax base it provides to the community can help schools address the issue. “But maybe it needs to go beyond that,” he acknowledged.

Cameron Bruett, a spokesman for JBS, said that, “when specific needs are identified, we do our best to respond and meet those needs.”

“We look forward to meeting with District 6 and seeing how we can do a better job of playing a positive role in that community,” he added.

Officials at District 6, which serves Greeley and Evans, hope so.

Coming to Greeley

Families like Abdi’s have been coming here since the spring of 2008, when 10 students from Somali families who got jobs at JBS enrolled in the school district. Today, the District 6 student population comprises 20 nationalities, including children from Myanmar, Guatemala, Sudan, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Indonesia.

These refugees were persecuted in their homeland because their ethnicity, faith or political beliefs and were granted asylum in the United States. A presidential declaration capped the number of refugees allowed in the country at 76,000 this year.

“My parents left the country because of the war,” Abdi said. “It wasn’t safe for them there.”

Nearly 1,900 refugees legally resettled in Colorado last year, with the majority staying in the Denver metro area. Like Abdi’s parents, they often come first to a primary resettlement location such as Denver and branch out to places like Greeley, where JBS is known to hire them.

Abdi’s father, Shariff Abdinoor, spent a few months in Denver before he heard from a friend that JBS hired Somalis for work in its Greeley plant. He moved to Greeley, was hired by JBS and spent five years making $13 per hour cleaning the meat-processing plant, which has the capacity to process 5,400 cattle daily.

Abdinoor said he quit his job a few months ago over a vacation pay dispute. He has searched for another job since then. Overall, however, Abdinoor enjoyed his work at JBS and said he was treated well.

Welcoming diversity

District 6 educators say they appreciate the global perspective that the refugee students bring into their classrooms.

“They add so much culture to our community and to our district,´ said Kathi VanSoest, the district’s executive director of student support services. “It’s been a great experience while also being a very impactful experience.”

The second- to fifth-graders in Mary Hoff’s class at Centennial Elementary School tell her stories of their former homes. They have told her about climbing trees to collect leaves to build their homes, using smoke to calms bees to collect honey from hives and riding elephants.

They also tell of atrocities, including the massacre of fellow villagers. “They’ve seen some things that you don’t know how they’re OK,” Hoff said.

But these students somehow have coped and many do well in Hoff’s class, moving on to regular classes in just a few months. Hoff said she feels fortunate to teach such motivated students. “I almost never have to push them to work,” she said.

District 6, however, is paying a high price for this diversity.

Its English Language Development program costs $2.7 million a year. It received just $350,000 in federal funding this year to help offset that cost. A $590,000 state grant helped fund the program over two years.

“We get very limited funding,” VanSoest said. “Most of the funding for the work and program must come from the district’s general fund.”

VanSoest is one of the district administrators who say that JBS USA, owned by Brazilian meat packer JBS S.A., could and should do more to help.

The company’s contributions so far have included a barbeque dinner it sponsored at an elementary school. Earlier this year, it contributed $20,000 to the district’s Success Foundation for technology upgrades, but school officials say none of that money has funded the education of refugee students.

Strapped for cash and more

The lack of funding for these kinds of programs goes beyond District 6. An ongoing court battle, Lobato v. Colorado, underscores the tension over funding in general between schools and the state.

The lawsuit, filed in 2005, argues that state support for kindergarten through 12th grade education falls short by $3 billion. A Denver district judge agreed and ruled against the state in December 2011. The state has appealed the judge’s decision.

The federal government requires that schools fund English-learning programs, said Trish Boland, director of the state Office of Elementary and Secondary Act Program. Her office works to ensure that districts have adequate programs in place.

But she acknowledged funding is problematic. “Do we adequately fund our schools? Probably not,” Boland said.

District 6 continues to spend money on the English-learners program despite $17 million in cuts to its $120 million general fund budget over the past three years. The cuts have forced the district to reduce its payroll through attrition.

Meanwhile, the $2.7 million it allocates to English learners isn’t enough. The money mostly funds salaries of fewer than 40 teachers with special training – a ratio of just one teacher per 115 students in the program. The district would like to at least double the number of teachers assigned to helping these children.

Teachers also say they need newer technology to help educate the students.

Underscoring the point, the students in Jessica Cooney’s class at Greeley West, ages 14 to 21, recited their English lessons recently from a fuzzy overhead-projector image.

The refugee students also need laptop computers, just like students in regular classes have, Cooney said. “The technology is key and that’s what we’re so severely lacking,” she said.

Beyond technology, these children and their families get a lot of help from Marte Samuelstuen, a community liaison who works for the district.

Samuelstuen connects students and their families with everything from health care to low-income utility aid and other public assistance. “It’s beyond full-time,” she said. “It goes way beyond 40 hours per week.”

Even working overtime, she can’t fulfill all the needs of the refugee families. She estimates that there’s enough work for four community liaisons – if the district had the money.

As hard as the teachers and others in the district work, it’s fair to say that many of the children work equally hard.

“They’re very responsible,” VanSoest said. “They’re very respectful learners and try their very best.”

“But, of course, as you can imagine, it’s very challenging for them.”

Yet, like their American peers, those who work hard can hope for better rewards.

Abdi, for one, wants to attend UNC to become a teacher.

Her goal is to work with refugee students.

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