Many new immigrant and refugee families say they are being left behind — especially when it comes to education.
There’s a lot of attention focused on new arrivals to Seattle these days. As our region booms they are equally welcomed for their economic contribution and blamed for pushing up the cost of living. But whether you like them or not (or whether it depends on the day), they are Seattleites now and are part of our future.
“They” are now “Us.”
And that’s as true of a yuppie tech couple settling in a downtown Seattle condo as it is of a Somali-American family working to make ends meet in the South End. But while Seattle (or at least its institutions) seems happy to accommodate those in the first category, many new immigrant and refugee families say they are being left behind — especially when it comes to education.
“I wouldn’t say it’s intentional, but it’s a language barrier, it’s a cultural barrier and it’s a lack of human understanding for refugees and immigrants … ” says Nourah Yonous, who works in Education Outreach for OneAmerica, a local immigrant-rights group.
That lack of understanding is resulting in what Yonous calls an “opportunity gap.” That’s backed up by data OneAmerica collected in its recently released “Road Map Project” report. The report focuses on the highest-need areas in South King County and shows that some student subgroups, including English-language learners and students from low-income families, are behind their peers in everything from kindergarten readiness to math achievement. It also shows that children from most minority groups are being suspended and expelled at disproportionate rates.
The opportunity gap especially impacts Somali families, a newer population of people who have escaped conflict in their home country and are often low-income, says Regina Elmi, co-founder of the OneAmerica-supported Somali Parent Education Board.
“In the state of Washington minorities are becoming the majority. They are growing in crazy numbers,” says Elmi, who herself is Somali and came to the United States via a Kenyan refugee camp as a child. “But if they are failing, how can our state of Washington succeed?”
Elmi believes Somali parents are a key to closing the opportunity gap but says cultural barriers often keep parents from getting involved in their children’s schools.
“Back home, the only time you go to [your child’s] school is when they’re in trouble,” says Elmi. “Here, you’re at school all the time.”
The newly formed parent-education board helps Somali parents and children by promoting early learning at home and in formal day-care settings and by encouraging parents to volunteer at schools and join PTA’s. They’ve also held “know-your-rights” training to help inform Somali families that they’re entitled to request a translator from schools and can receive services for special-needs kids.
Beyond parent involvement, Elmi and Yonous both agree that schools, overextended as they are, could do more to welcome immigrant families and children. They could institute structural changes, like hiring diverse staff, providing translated materials for parents and including culturally relevant material in school curricula.
But they say there’s also a need for a general shift in attitude.
“I understand that some school systems don’t have that much capacity. … But there has to be a way for a school system to actually understand the demographics they are serving differently,” says Yonous. She believes Somali-American parents and students should be seen as an asset — think linguistic, ethnic and cultural diversity — instead of as a burden. Schools need to be thinking, she said, “How do I treat you with the dignity and respect you deserve as a full human being?”
The Somali community’s desire to be included in their children’s education was on display last weekend at a OneAmerica forum on Somali families and the opportunity gap at the New Holly housing development in Rainier Valley.
Opening the forum was Tukwila Council Member De’Sean Quinn, who shared his own negative experience with the school system as an African-American student.
“I say today we stop failing. … Your kids’ failure is my failure. … It is our collective failure,” said Quinn, his words translated from English to Somali through tiny headphones to a cheering crowd.
To stop failing immigrant and refugee kids — we owe that to our newcomers, we owe that to our city and we owe that to the future we all share.