Governing Board Member Karen Clark Mejia and I visited the students and staff at Johnson Elementary School this Wednesday. We enjoyed hearing stories from Johnson’s new principal Christine Sphar, formerly principal and Madison Elementary School, who served as a teacher at Johnson during the early years of her career. It was fun to watch Christine engage with students whose parents were once in her classroom…”Did you know that I was you dad’s and your uncle’s teacher?”… We were impressed by the routines and procedures the Johnson staff had in place in only the second full week of school. Student engagement and learning were very impressive. What stood out most, though, was the apparent love and care for the children on campus. Congratulations on a great start to the year Johnson family.
Our first CSPP parent engagement activity was a success! 23 parents and many of their children attended the first of 2 “Let’s Read Together” workshops – which are available to us through QPI and First 5. Parents and children enjoy a meal before the workshop, then children engage in activities with IAs and ELDAs while parents attend a literacy workshop around a specific book. The workshop includes a “make it, take it” for extension activities to take home to do with children after they read the story together. They also get a copy of the book! (Frog on His Own). Notice our preschool parent liaison, Firas, meeting families, introducing himself and helping with some translation.
Shared by Patricia Bowman (Chase) and Ginny Pinkerton (Director, Early Childhood Programs)
Join ABC Youth Foundation President Billy Moore as he presents the ABC Concept with El Cajon Police Chief Jeff Davis; Heartland Fire & Rescue Fire Chief Colin Stowell; Cajon Valley Superintendent David Miyashiro, Ed.D, and students from Cajon Valley schools as we hit the heavy bag! We’re really looking forward to the 1M Punches from the Heart events at Fire Station 6 on September 15th & 16th.
Abed Samadi stood frozen as chaos buzzed around him. Bodies darted back and forth. Yells echoed in the air.
But for the sixth-grader who had just moved to El Cajon as a refugee from Afghanistan, this chaos was good. It was fun.
It was a giant game of tag.
A smile spread across his face, and Abed joined his P.E. classmates at Emerald STEAM Magnet Middle School. Dressed in a gray T-shirt and dark green shorts, he blended into the whirling mass of students, their sneakers squeaking across the glossy gym floor.
It was April, and Abed, his parents and four siblings had arrived in San Diego in March – just days before President Donald Trump’s second travel ban was set to take effect. For the kids, school quickly became a source of joy.
“One thing that really impressed me is that when my kids joined school, they were very happy,” said Abed’s father, Hamad Samadi, through a Dari-speaking interpreter. “On vacation they were upset. They said, ‘Why aren’t we going to school?’ This surprised me.”
Abed Samadi, Caption: Abed Samadi, a refugee student from Afghanistan, is shown in his P.E. class at Emerald STEAM Magnet Middle School in El Cajon. (Megan Wood / inewsource)
California now leads all other states in refugee resettlement, according to State Department figures. But San Diego County – which took in the most refugees in the state last fiscal year – has long been a destination for people escaping war or persecution in their home countries.
Since 1975, more than 85,000 refugees have made San Diego County their first home. And though the area’s refugee population has become increasingly diverse over time, one thing remains constant: Many refugee parents wrap their hopes for a new life here in the promise of a quality education for their children.
More than 3,000 refugees resettled in San Diego County during federal fiscal 2016, leading some in the community to question whether area schools – many already operating with limited resources – would be able to deliver on the refugee dream of a quality education for all in America.
As more refugee students enrolled across the county, some campuses found themselves grappling with the unique needs of more newcomers than ever before. Many students spoke no English, some had never sat in a classroom and complex mental health needs were abundant.
“Some of the things they’ve seen or experienced, you cannot even watch in a movie. You have to look away,” said Daniel Nyamangah, a community advocate who works with area high school students.
Though the future of the federal refugee program has been put into question under Trump, last year’s influx of new arrivals to San Diego County – the third highest on record since 1983– could have a lasting impact on the region’s public schools.
In this special report, we looked at three examples of how San Diego is educating its refugee students, including what challenges remain and what it could mean for the future of the county.
Trump’s travel ban
In June, the Supreme Court agreed to hear challenges to the Trump administration’s travel ban, which – in addition to banning entry to the U.S. for citizens from six majority-Muslim countries – would bar all refugee resettlement for at least four months.
In its acceptance of the case, the court allowed the refugee blockade to move forward immediately for those without “bona fide” relationships in the U.S.
Cajon Valley Union School District: ‘They want the American dream’
Colored drawings of the American flag and the Statue of Liberty are taped to a wall in a newcomers classroom at Emerald middle school in El Cajon.(Megan Wood / inewsource)
On a breezy April morning, clusters of students gathered in the main quad of Emerald STEAM Magnet Middle School in El Cajon. With backpacks slung over their shoulders and remnants of cereal on their trays, the students chatted noisily, waiting for their signal to disperse.
When the prompt came, it was barely audible. In less than three seconds, the school bell’s muted tone subtly triggered the more than 500 students to head for class.
For Principal Steven Bailey, who recently changed schools, something once as simple as the school bell became a challenge last year. After realizing that loud and unexpected noises were upsetting to some of the school’s 78 “newcomers,” he tinkered with the bell to make it less jarring.
Steve-Bailey, Caption: Steven Bailey, former principal of Emerald STEAM Middle School in El Cajon, talks with students before the school day starts on April 23, 2017. (Megan Wood / inewsource)
El Cajon and its refugees
El Cajon, about 15 miles northeast of downtown San Diego, has a well-established refugee community of Iraqi Chaldean Christians that dates back to the 1970s. Markets stocked with Middle Eastern ingredients are plentiful, and Arabic signs dot the main roads. More recently, refugees from other Middle Eastern countries, including Afghanistan and Syria, have settled in this city of about 100,000.
In the Cajon Valley Union School District, where Emerald is located, more than 880 newcomers – students born outside of the U.S. and who have never attended an American school – enrolled during the 2016-17 school year. Many of them arrived as refugees, settling in this San Diego suburb on the final leg of a journey marked by upheavals.
The district, which serves nearly 17,000 students, is made up of only elementary and middle schools. According to district estimates, about one out of every five Cajon Valley students came to the U.S. as a refugee.
Meeting academic, emotional needs of students
For Bailey and the staff at Emerald, last year’s record influx of newcomers created a steep learning curve.
They responded, he said, with shared sacrifice.
The school, which serves grades six through eight, began the year with one newcomer class. By April, there were four. Classes for newcomers ranged from 14 to 24 students. Elsewhere in the school, classes peaked to 36.
“You can either do it the easy way or the right way,” Bailey said. “It’s all about the needs of kids, not adults.”
Nearly 10 percent of all U.S. public school students were English language learners in 2014-15, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Locally, more than 20 percentof students were still learning English in San Diego County last year, according to the California Department of Education.
But because federal law prohibits schools from inquiring about a student’s immigration or citizenship status, it is impossible to say exactly how many of those students have a refugee background.
Abby-Maayah, Caption: Abby Maayah is the coordinator of refugee services for the Cajon Valley Union School District. (Megan Wood / inewsource)
Still, experts say that schools like Emerald must recognize – and respond to – the difference between refugees and other newcomer students.
When anti-outsider rhetoric permeated the nation’s airwaves during the 2016 presidential campaign, Cajon Valley doubled down on its embrace of refugees, holding private meetings with new families and sponsoring classes for parents, district officials said. To meet students’ needs, the central office invested in four counselors devoted to working with children affected by trauma.
“We understand that it’s not just about academics,” said Abby Maayah, who coordinates refugee services for the district. “We really have to look at our kids as a whole. We need to make sure that their social and emotional well-being is in consideration.”
Juggling dollars to educate refugees
According to the California Budget and Policy Center, the state spends approximately $10,000 on each of its K-12 public school students per year. But because state funding is based on average daily attendance, the later a student enrolls in school, the less funding a district will receive.
In the Cajon Valley district, the first day of school for many refugee students often comes midyear. And for a district where more than 70 percent of its students come from low-income households, a steady trickle of newcomers can exacerbate an already difficult situation: how to serve more high-needs kids with fewer resources.
Cajon Valley says it crafts its budget to anticipate additional costs each year – a lesson learned after years of enrolling newcomer students long after the start of school. To fill any gaps, the district has looked for other revenue sources, officials said.
Last school year, 220 of Cajon Valley’s refugee students got a boost of support through an after-school program funded with federal grant money. Students received extra English language instruction and counseling services. They were also exposed to different enrichment activities, including soccer and photography, Maayah said.
But the federal government changed the way it administers the grant in 2016, resulting in fewer dollars for Cajon Valley students than in years past. After-school programming had to be shortened from three to two days, and a month-long summer program was canceled.
District officials say they’ve plowed ahead in search of solutions.
In December, staff traveled to Dearborn, Michigan, another city with a significant refugee population. There, they toured classrooms and learned about the school district’s efforts to serve its refugee students.
With one of the largest refugee student populations in the state, Cajon Valley schools will get a significant piece of that funding.
Finding the right teachers
Eleven newcomer teachers were employed across Cajon Valley schools last year, according to Eyal Bergman, head of the district’s family and community outreach. Of those, six were hired after the school year started and in response to a wave of new students, he said.
“They get to know students. They get to understand them. They get to calm their anxieties and their fears,” Bergman said.
Eyal-Bergman, Caption: Eyal Bergman is the family and community engagement officer for the Cajon Valley Union School District. (Megan Wood / inewsource)
One of those teachers is David Olsen, who was hired in January after Emerald began taking overflow enrollment from a neighboring school. Among the school’s new students were several refugees.
Before coming to the U.S., many of Olsen’s students spent time in Jordan or Turkey, where they say they didn’t feel welcomed. One of his students was shot, he said. Another’s mom was killed by ISIS.
Once in the U.S., news reports about travel bans caused students to worry whether friends and family members back home would get out safely, Olsen said. One morning in the spring, a male student confided in Olsen that he had just learned a friend had died while trying to escape Iraq.
All students at Emerald have access to a counselor, but for those who have experienced significant trauma, the school relies on partnerships with community-based organizations, including the Crossroads Family Center in El Cajon.
Olsen, a former elementary teacher, said his students benefit from the stability of being with one teacher throughout the day. His approach to teaching has also been influenced by what his students have endured, he said.
“For some of the students who haven’t been able to go to school, who have missed school because of being a refugee, I want to give them maybe a little piece of their childhood that they missed,” said Olsen, who gives his adolescent students recess, read-alouds and carpet-time.
Last spring, many in the El Cajon community anxiously followed each new development about the Trump administration’s travel ban. At Emerald, wary students and staff tried to remain positive.
In Olsen’s classroom, boys and girls sat together in small groups – an adjustment for some students who had only attended single-sex schools. They giggled with each other and raised their hands to ask for help. Behind them, their art hung on the classroom wall.
“I come from Syria. I am sad about my country. I am happy about school,” read the rainbow-colored letters of one student’s work.
Bailey, the school’s former principal, is appreciative of his role.
“Every student and family that I talk to, they plan on staying here and becoming citizens of this country,” he said. “They want the American dream.”
What an amazing first couple of weeks in Cajon Valley Union School District. The first day back for teachers began with #cvConference. Our first attempt at hosting our own professional learning conference for the entire district set a high bar the for the next one. Thank you to all those who lent a hand, mind, and heart to make it possible. Here’s a short recap of #cvConference.
On Monday, August 14th we gathered together at Shadow Mountain Church for our Convocation and annual Welcome Back Breakfast. We will have highlights from our All Staff Welcome Back Breakfast soon… but in the meantime we have the highlight reel from TEDxKids@ElCajon 2017 and our District Office Welcome Back Video “Everyday Heroes”
The video encapsulates the messages of “You can’t” that our students often face from their environment, and how just one teacher who connects with them and tells them, “You can!” can change their trajectory for life. This teacher’s video and subsequent YouTube channel is a reflection of the many teachers in Cajon Valley who tell their students “You can!” and inspire them daily to do so.