Confronting the Migration Learning Curve

January 24, 2024
• This is part two of a multi-part Needham Local series on refugee resettlement and its face in Needham. For the Needham Public Schools, an influx of international migrants calls for more than just English language support — it’s about supporting families throughout their journey.

While Needham students spend the school day speaking and writing in English, many return home speaking Ukrainian, Russian, Spanish and more than 20 other languages.

A handful of those students, however, may not be fluent in English and are placed in the district’s English Language Learner Program.

Most of the program’s 157 students — just under 3% of total district enrollment — are native to the United States, but some call America their second home. School officials say the latter group has only grown.

“We went from a very small number of students requiring [English language] services and other services to a spike in students coming in, sometimes with very little English, at the high school level,” said Mary Lammi, assistant superintendent for student support services.

That, in part, may have to do with turmoil abroad, as some families fear their older children may be forced to fight, Lammi said. The district is welcoming more newcomers at the middle and high school level than in previous years, she said, and those students require more English language assistance.

“It’s not just about an increase in numbers,” Lammi said, “it’s also about the increase in level of need.”

When students register for school, their families fill out a home language survey to indicate what, if any, languages besides English their children are exposed to. Once screeners determine a particular learner needs additional English instruction, they are tested each year on their proficiency, which determines whether or not they continue in the program.

Once out, those students are monitored for four more years, English Language Learner Education Director Jamie Singelais said. But while students are still grasping the language, they’re in class reading textbooks in English, listening to their teachers speak English and trying to decipher new material in English, a foreign language.

“It’s a challenge,” Singelais said. “ELL students are learning English at the same time as they’re trying to learn a content area also in English… They already know how to read a book and answer questions in Russian. They just don’t know how to do it in English yet.”

Such is the case for Liudmyla Moseichuk’s young son. The Needham family of four moved from Ukraine last spring, and while Moseichuk immigrated with basic English skills, her now 4-year-old son did not.

But a new country also introduced other challenges — enrolling both of her children in school proved difficult, Moseichuk said, and elements of “basic living,” like signing up for health insurance, was also confusing.

“It was hard to understand what I needed to do first when I moved to another town, to another state,” Moseichuk said.

Refugee families often arrive without health care, School Health Services Director Susannah Hann said, but the schools work to help. Taking a “multi-prong approach,” the district partnered with Needham Public Health to get students without insurance vaccinated, Hann said. They also provide resources for families to sign up for health insurance.

An increased number of Needham students need medical care, Hann said, but it’s become harder to get them that care. Two free clinics in Framingham once accepted patients rather quickly, but that’s since changed, she said.

“Those programs are so backed up, they’re not taking any new patients,” Hann said, “and so the resources are stretched very thin, and so we’re having to get creative.”

Much of the district’s outreach deals with navigating systems. Singelais said they work to inform newcomers of programs for which they may be eligible while also trying to bridge a cultural gap — some countries only go to school for half a day or eat lunch at home, so it’s important to anticipate and acknowledge those differences.

Singelais said they tell parents about free and reduced lunches, transportation, extracurriculars like sports and music and access to various resources on and off school grounds. And that connection doesn’t end when the school day does — the district can communicate with non-English-speaking families via a phone translation service to better share vital information.

“It allows us to support families more quickly and to really empower people who are outside of the English learner department… The phone line really removes that barrier for families and for school personnel so that we can support them,” Singelais said, “so we found that to be very helpful.”

Beyond the language barrier, one thing needs no translation. As they leave war-torn countries that may have devastated their homes and killed their loved ones, new arrivals carry trauma with them.

That trauma is reignited via social media, the constant news cycle and their families who may still be overseas, and it requires a significant sensitivity, Lammi said.

The youth mental health crisis, exacerbated by the pandemic, has led to a high demand for counseling support in Needham schools, Lammi said. A “large percentage” of the district’s annual budgets go toward support services, counseling, English language learning and health services, she added. The budget for ELL services alone increased nearly 33% between FY 2021 and FY 2024, and that is forecasted to increase an additional 7% in the next fiscal year, based on recommendations made by Superintendent Dan Gutekanst.

“Our investment around social-emotional learning and mental health has always been a huge priority,” she said. “It’s even more important for us to be sure that our staff are prepared around their knowledge and skill set to support kiddos.”

No matter how much assistance they may need, new students are appreciated, Lammi said, as they contribute to the diverse fabric of the classroom.

“When we have students coming in from other countries, there’s a real value add there because they provide diversity,” Lammi said. “They’re oftentimes multilingual or are learning different languages, and that is all something that enriches our learning environment for all students.”

The first installment in this series detailed how one Ukranian woman is adjusting to life in Needham. Future installments will cover how new arrivals can navigate the American financial system and find resource networks amidst fellow residents.

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