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Lynn School District Struggles To Educate Influx Of Refugees

This article is more than 11 years old.

The New America Center
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LYNN, Mass. — With its cheaper rentals and abundance of public housing, the city of Lynn has become a magnet for families displaced by an ailing economy. This includes a growing number of immigrants — many of whom are refugees seeking a better life.

The Lynn school district says it is faced with a growing number of refugee students who have had little or no education and who may speak languages for which there is no translator.

August is a busy time for school administrators in Lynn. Parents are signing their children up to attend class.

In a span of five minutes, families from Cambodia, Nepal and the former Soviet Union line up to register.

Forty-nine languages are now spoken by immigrant students and their parents in Lynn public schools.

“My name is Meaza Gebredingel. I’m from Ethiopia. I have five children. I’m a single mother.”

"There was a large influx of Somali Bantu, and they had absolutely no education: they weren’t literate in their own language, some of the languages they speak don’t even have written languages."

Becky Jones, New American Center

Gebredingel came to Lynn with her family two years ago. Her 14-year-old daughter Herena is translating.

"In our country it's kind of weird. It doesn’t matter that you were born in some country. It matters where your parents are from. So she is nationally an Eritrean, although she was born in Ethiopia and lived in Ethiopia pretty much her whole life. And the Ethiopians were kind of mad that the Eritreans were living in their country, so they kicked all Eritreans out," Herena says.

Herena's family first went to Kenya, where she studied English. But most of the refugees in Lynn don’t know any English before they arrive here — in fact, some may speak only in tribal languages for which there is no translator.

"It’s hard because when you step into the class, like, you don’t know how to speak English," says Aye Kay, a 14-year-old from Burma.

Kay came to Lynn from a refugee camp in Thailand. She says it's been hard adjusting to school here.

"The teacher say [sic] go to take a seat and you don’t know what that means,” Kay says.

"How long have you been here?" I ask her.

"Five year [sic]," she replies.

"Why did you come here? Why did your family come here?"

"Because we want to be free and try to save ourself [sic], because the Burma people tried to kill us.”

Since Kay's family came to Lynn, the population has grown by almost a third. The city has become a popular destination because of its access to public assistance programs and to public housing.

Lynn is also one of the few cities in Massachusetts where the United Nations High Commission for Refugees relocates people from all over the world. Families who have endured war and famine come from countries as far away as Sudan, Bhutan and Iraq.

“What we're seeing is more students with huge gaps in their education or no formal education at all — we didn’t see that before,” says Lynn Public Schools Superintendent Catherine Latham. “We've had students who couldn’t even point to their names on a printed page. That's difficult to overcome.”

And the challenges are not just academic, but cultural as well. For example, Latham says, Somalis who came from refugee camps had a steep learning curve.

“We had to inform them not to use open fires to cook their food, we had to show them how to use bathrooms. The cultural differences are sometimes amazing,” she says.

A few years ago, the district started offering what it calls "newcomer classes" for teenage immigrants who have had little or no schooling. Then last year, night classes began for those teens whose academic level would place them in classes with middle schoolers. There are also English classes for their parents.

But despite all these efforts, the challenges to educate the number and scope of refugees coming into Lynn is daunting. That’s where the nonprofit New American Center comes in.

On a recent afternoon, teens from all over the world are taking summer classes. From Sudan, Burundi, Iraq, Liberia, Ivory Coast, Cameroon and many other countries, they're learning math to get ready for school in a few weeks. They're also taking mentoring classes to learn how to cope with being different. The center's goal is to help Lynn's school district educate the influx of immigrants.

“We try to pack as much school readiness into a couple of weeks that is humanly possible,” says Becky Jones, who runs the school preparedness program at the New American Center.

Jones says in recent years, the number of refugees coming in for classes has doubled.

“New populations tend to come in waves, and there was a large influx of Somali Bantu, and they had absolutely no education: they weren’t literate in their own language, some of the languages they speak don’t even have written languages," she says.

"And the next year, around the same time, we got a large wave of students from Burma, people who are ethnic minorities who don’t speak even the primary language of Burma. Their family is the only family that speaks their language. And so the kids have to translate for the parents at parent-teacher conferences.”

For Gabredigal, the New American Center and the Lynn Public Schools are the answer to a better life.

“She came here to get us a better education, she wanted her kids to have more than she did. She didn’t have anything,” Herena says.

As more immigrant families like Herena's rely on the public schools in Lynn, the district plans to expand its efforts to educate these diverse populations moving into the city. In the meantime, classes start Sept. 7.


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