Language key to inclusion for former refugees

Issue: Volume 98, Number 18

Posted: 24 October 2019
Reference #: 1HA17y

A lack of cross-cultural friendships affects English language learners’ sense of belonging and wellbeing, a Massey University project has found.

Dr Jessica Terruhn, a senior research officer at Massey has done a research project with a group of Year 9 to 13 English language learners to find out how school practices and peer and student-teacher interactions shaped their sense of inclusion.

The students had very clear ideas about what helped or hindered their sense of school belonging, inclusion and wellbeing. All suffered when they were excluded – either from mainstream classes or from socialising with their Kiwi peers.

Dr Terruhn’s study found that addressing inclusion needs for English language learners, including international fee-paying students, requires a whole-school approach.

Connection begins with home visits

Nelson College for Girls (NCG) has become increasingly multicultural over the past 10 years. There are currently 65 students from refugee families out of a total 950 girls on the school roll.

As soon as the school hears from Red Cross that there’s a new refugee family enrolling at NCG, Marion Janke, the college’s refugee education co-ordinator, visits the home with a bilingual liaison worker to welcome the family. The informal visit is to provide information and allay fears and worries.

“So when they come into the school and meet with me, they have already met Marion, they have already met the liaison person and they already know about the school,” says Heather McEwen, deputy principal with responsibility for former refugees.

The new students attend ESOL classes for ‘as long as it takes’ – usually at least three to four terms – before they can fully join mainstream classes.

“We make sure they begin with 16 hours of ESOL, four hours of maths and one optional subject, which might be materials, art, music or food technology. Learning English is the key, otherwise they can’t access anything else,” Heather explains.

Students are placed in ESOL classes depending on their needs. Heather explains that all the refugee students have had some form of education but have limited written English skills. The Kayan and Kayah people (ethnic minorities of Myanmar) have no written language and the students’ parents are often illiterate.

“The classes are multi-cultural and include international paying students. That’s been amazing for breaking down barriers because you have foreign fee-paying students in the same class as a student who has been brought up in a resettlement camp,” says Heather.

Marion juggles the most pressing needs of the students who face many challenges.

“When we do the pre-enrolment family visits, I try to find out a bit about the family and, if it’s appropriate, about the refugee journey and if there are any traumatic experiences. Normally they have been in Mangere for six weeks and have arrived in Nelson just the week before and everything is brand new,” she says.

Former refugee voices

Earlier this year the Nelson Tasman Settlement Forum did some research called the Youth Settlement Voice project. Former refugee students from cultural ethnicities – Colombian, Nepali, Afghani, Kayah, Kayan and Chin – met to discuss the challenges they faced and what has helped them settle and feel included at NCG.

The outcome of these discussions was presented to Heather. “That was very important to them, Marion says. “They felt listened to, heard, taken seriously, respected by a senior staff member.”

The group discussions enabled the former refugee students to understand a range of different perspectives, says Heather. “For example the Kayan girls, who don’t speak as much English, said ‘I’m really nervous and so I don’t like teachers looking me in the eye’. The Colombian girls replied that they do like it when teachers do this. They understood amongst themselves that they were all totally different.

“But their voices are so important,” explains Heather. “They talk about how they want to make friends, but it’s so hard, yet they’ve got friends in their cultural group and that’s easy. We tried to explain that when they are all smiling and talking together, New Zealand students are a little bit scared to come and talk to you because you are all so happy and you’re all talking a language they don’t understand.”

Sharing refugee stories

While the lack of English skills is a big obstacle for many of the former refugee students, the college uses a range of initiatives to help the general school population understand their backgrounds. These include the school’s Amnesty International group organising shared lunches and ‘speed dating’ events; and featuring refugee journeys as a social studies topic.

“One example was where the bilingual in-class support person translated for the Colombian students and explained to the class what they experienced as refugees. This created so much more compassion and empathy in the others because they were now aware of how something so terrible could happen to one of their peers,” Marion says.

The school tries to focus events such as the 40 Hour Famine, Race Unity and Refugee Week on the stories of students at the school.

“There were huge rains and floods in Chin state and because the girls are so connected with the people back home through the internet, they were really upset about it and so they did a coin trail and spoke at assembly and got other students behind what was happening in their lives,” Heather says.

Support and goodwill

The Ministry of Education’s flexible funding supports the school’s homework programme and funds bilingual in-class support for
15 hours a week. NCG provides extra financial support to help the girls get involved in other activities.

Some Colombian and Chin students played football this year for the Second XI and the school paid for their gear and fees. “They have had a fantastic time but things like that are a big step for them because financially, things are pretty tough. We’ve booked a school van to take the girls out to volleyball in Stoke, because they don’t have transport like everybody else does,” Heather explains.

“There’s also a lot of goodwill from our staff—the football coach gives her time free and one of our science teachers picked up all the girls to take them to the senior ball to make sure they would get there.”

Building an inclusive environment

In 2018, the school introduced arahi classes – small vertical groups that meet three times a week for half an hour and do a range of activities together.

“Part of it is the tuakana–teina/big sister–little sister concept and that’s been really good for the former refugee students,” says Heather.

Cultural awareness helps

The Youth Settlement Voice project reported positive and consistent welcoming strategies for overseas-born students at NCG. Teachers, interpreters and bilingual liaison workers, the homework support programme and mentors for Year 9 girls were all regarded as helpful. The school’s cultural diversity day was a highlight and having friends from the same cultural group helped students settle in.

Girls who took part in the research said their lack of English skills held them back in class because they felt too shy to contribute, which affected their self-confidence. While the girls didn’t think NCG should alter its core strategies, they recommended more help to break down the barriers between themselves and Kiwi students. They hoped that increased awareness of cultural differences would help them feel more settled.

Overcoming challenges 

Year 11 student Resika arrived from Nepal four and a half years ago when she was 11. She spoke English but says it was hard to blend in with a different culture.

“When you are friends with Kiwi people, they are really friendly and nice, but they don’t know what we feel.

“The main challenge for me was interacting with people, so when I came to this college I decided to join different committees. That has made me more confident to talk to other people. Because this was not me two years ago!”

Resika is a member of the Student Academic Committee, plays in the Second XI, is secretary of the Nelson Multicultural Youth, and is the youth and sports co-ordinator for the Nelson Bhutanese community.

“You have to push yourself forward and join groups to help overcome those challenges,” Resika says

Forging futures

Former refugee students work hard and achieve well in NCEA, says Heather. “Every year we write milestone reports for the ministry and it’s fantastic to see the number of students with NCEA Level 2 and students going on to tertiary study. Two of our girls have had Sir Robert Jones scholarships. We’ve never put a limitation on what they can do. They are here to be students and to develop. It must be amazingly difficult and I am so proud of them. Many students work incredibly hard and are so grateful for education.”

Marion says that some of the students go to the after-school homework club three times a week to help increase their academic achievement, but attendance drops off when some senior students need to get part-time jobs to pay for future study. “That is actually a big problem, because they then fall back academically.”

Gateway courses popular

The school helps some students find pathways through their Gateway course and the Nelson Marlborough Institute of Technology’s (NMIT) Trades Academy. Many former refugee students are interested in a trade, Heather says, and the school generally has 20 Year 12 students attend the Trades Academy.

“One day a week students do courses at NMIT and gain NCEA credits. They work with students from other colleges and it helps open that doorway/pathway to further training. Two of our girls have done hairdressing and beauty courses and are now in apprenticeships in salons in Nelson.”

“In the Gateway course, they do a work placement one day a week, so if they want to get into the hospitality industry, they might work in a café where they get some work experience, which is harder to get in Nelson when you are a former refugee,” she says.

Marion is fiercely proud of the resilience and courage of her young charges. “I admire their determination, goal setting and ‘I want to achieve’ attitudes. It’s not surprising they do well when you see how hard they have been working,” she says.

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 2:03 pm, 24 October 2019

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