Refugee cuts hit Fort Worth schools: ‘We just aren’t getting that many kids anymore’

Some elementary-school English learners will not be taught at language centers next school year, under a Fort Worth school plan that revamps how the program is delivered as fewer refugee children arrive to build new lives in Tarrant County after fleeing war, religious intolerance or persecution in their native countries.

The Fort Worth school district has long taught refugee students who are arrive to Tarrant County after fleeing persecution in their homelands. Through the years, students have arrived from countries such as Vietnam, Bosnia, Somalia, Somalia, Sudan and Syria.

As the district streamlines services to stretch money with an eye on next year’s budget, it is retooling how it offers some services to English learners — specifically students who arrive in the United States from non-Spanish speaking countries.

For about 25 years, the district has delivered English as a Second Language services through a language center format that takes students to central sites, but now the district plans to phase out the centers. One reason is recent refugee resettlement trends.

“It’s the refugee population and the refugee population has dwindled recently,” said Karen Neal, interim director for ESL in the Fort Worth school district.

There are seven language centers for elementary students that serve refugees and newcomers in the third through fifth grades. Plans are under way to phase out these language centers by the start of the next school year — a process that includes reassigning 13 full-time teachers.

English as a Second Language educators will support campuses with large concentrations of English learners, according to the district.

In early April, 161 elementary students were being served at language centers, but the number is expected to drop to 53 next school year.

Plans are also under way to phase out language centers at middle schools by the 2020-21 school year. The middle school language centers serve students in sixth, seventh and eighth grades. In April, the district had 298 students in the middle school program. Next year, 25 teachers are projected to serve 84 students at seven sites.

“These numbers roll up hill,” Neal said. “Because my numbers are dwindling at elementary, there aren’t children to feed into middle school language centers. That also impacts my middle schools. If we serve third, fourth and fifth, if they come in as fifth-graders, they still have time in the system — we just aren’t getting that many kids anymore.”

The district stressed no educators will lose their job under the plan.

“These people are well-trained,” Neal said. “They have years of service. I am not going to just turn them loose. ... Their services will be used in another place, in another way. They will be servicing these same students.”

A global school community

In recent years, refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burma and Bhutan have resettled in Fort Worth.

As a result of Tarrant County’s welcoming nature to refugees, school districts are teaching students whose biographies reflect world problems and U.S. policies. In Keller schools, there are 63 languages spoken by students with Spanish, Vietnamese, Nepali and Arabic the most common.

Arlington, Birdville and Hurst-Euless-Bedford have also served communities of global students.

When the number of refugee youngsters swelled, the Fort Worth school district responded with added services.

Russell Smith, CEO of Refugee Services of Texas, said it isn’t surprising that recent cuts in the number of refugees resettled in the United States would start to affect local schools. His agency, the largest one of three serving Tarrant County, has been resettling fewer refugees.

In 2016, they helped resettle 581 refugees in Fort Worth. Last year, they resettled 150.

Those numbers are expected to keep going down.

U.S. presidents set a yearly cap on the number of refugees resettled. In the last year of the President Barack Obama’s administration the cap was set at 110,000. President Donald Trump’s administration set the cap lower for two consecutive years. It is now 30,000.

Smith said about 12,000 refugees have been resettled so far this fiscal year.

There are 25.4 million refugees in the world, he said, explaining that they are generally in refugee camps.

Jerry Burkett, assistant dean at UNT Dallas’ School of Education, has researched how schools have responded to immigrant and refugee fears in the current national climate.

“We are not as welcoming a nation as we once were” Burkett said, explaining that some countries are opening their doors to refugees as the United States turns more away.

Burkett said U.S. policies, travel bans and increased immigration crackdowns instill fear in immigrants and refugees. His research found school leaders have stepped in to calm families.

“I think school districts should be very proud of the work they are doing,” Burkett said.

A new model

Students who receive lessons in Fort Worth’s language centers have been in U.S. school systems for up to two years and don’t come from Spanish-speaking countries.

The language centers are housed at seven elementary schools — Carter Park, Kirkpatrick, Meadowbrook, Bruce Shulkey, Western Hills, Clifford Davis and Seminary Hills Park.

“People talk about the families coming across the southern border, but if they are Spanish-speaking and at the elementary level, they don’t come into ESL,” Neal said. “I have to be as efficient as possible and still provide services. I really need to look at doing it on a broader scale with the resources I have.”

The language centers at five high schools will not change because those student numbers are still “viable,” Neal said.

There are 413 students served at the high school language centers. There may be more next year because the eighth grade students are moving into high school. If students move into high school while still in the ESL window, they will continue to receive services in high school.

“I need to use taxpayer dollars as effectively and efficiently as I can. I also get money from the federal government and they want me to use the money as effectively and efficiently as possible,” Neal said, adding that she still has to make sure these students succeed in school. “I still have to make sure they are being prepared to graduate from high school in America.”

Under the proposed plans, students will rely on teachers who will support campuses experiencing the highest concentrations of English language learners.

Historically, the district tried to place the centers close to parts of the city in which refugee families settled, Neal said. But that could prove difficult because refugee populations are affected by how many the federal government allows into the country and where resettlement agencies help place them.

“We have a very fluid population that we work with,” Neal said. “The families move a lot. They may be in this apartment complex for six months and then the move over here where their friends live.”

As a result, the number of students served at the campus centers always vary, Neal said.

Neal said they are making changes with the refugee perspective in mind.

“They are new in the country,” Neal said. “Their mommas and daddies may not have transportation to school. I really don’t want them too far from home. I want them to be taken care of in a neighborhood school instead of busing them across town just because that’s where the teacher is.”

Neal said they are also mindful of the strong connections between teacher and students.

“Teachers get attached to the children in their room,” Neal said. “I don’t think it changes whether it is a kid born in a America or a kid born in Guatemala. It’s your child in your room. You love the ones who come to you.”

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Diane Smith, a graduate from the University of Texas at Austin, has been a reporter for the Star-Telegram since 1997. Smith, who has covered municipal government, immigration and education, has won multiple awards for reporting, most recently as part of a Star-Telegram team recognized by the Headliners Foundation of Texas for coverage of child abuse and Fort Worth’s Las Vegas Trail area.