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Partnering with School Districts during COVID-19: Tips for Refugee Service Providers

Partnerships between school districts and refugee service providers have always been important, but they have become vital during COVID-19. Refugee service providers include resettlement agency affiliates, community-based organizations (CBOS), ethnic community-based organizations (ECBOs), and others. These providers can help schools engage with refugee families in ways that are culturally and linguistically accessible. Many refugee service providers have also been able to virtually support refugee students and families on academics and related technology skills through afterschool tutoring programs, summer programs, and more. How each provider can partner with schools during COVID-19 depends on the strength of those relationships prior to the pandemic. That said, here are some general tips for refugee service providers seeking to build productive partnerships with school districts:

Focus your efforts on relationship-building with employees in the school district’s central office

In particular, key point people at the school district are those who oversee instruction for English learners, anyone who oversees family and community engagement, anyone focused on equity and opportunity gaps, and the head of communication. Depending on the size of your refugee community and the size of your school district, it may also be appropriate for the Executive Director of a refugee-serving organization to build a relationship with the Superintendent and/or school board members. These individuals in the central office can create systemic change and implement changes across the district as needed.

For timeless tips on establishing partnerships with school districts, check out Schools and Refugee-Serving Agencies: How to Start or Strengthen Collaboration, developed by Bridging Refugee Youth and Children’s Services (BRYCS). In particular, page four of this guide offers tips for refugee-serving community-based organizations that are having a hard time “getting in” to their local schools. Page seven provides additional tips for overcoming barriers to collaboration.

Emphasize your ability to support school districts with outreach and communication

School district communication departments often have a “one size fits all” approach to districtwide communication. As a refugee service provider, you have the ability to disseminate information to refugee communities in culturally and linguistically accessible ways. This could be providing information in refugees’ native languages, but just as important is demonstrating the ways in which refugees prefer to receive information (i.e. phone calls, WhatsApp message, etc.). Also, while school districts are required by federal law to provide information to parents in a language they understand, this often does not happen. The pandemic may be an opportunity to model for school districts how to do this work. Post-pandemic, you may have more time to develop a plan for school districts to appropriately compensate your organization for any interpretation/translation work you provide.

What Does this Collaboration Look Like in Action?

 RefugeeConnect is a community-based organization in Ohio that serves refugees in Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky. Before COVID-19, RefugeeConnect was already supporting refugee students and families through their Refugee School Impact program, mentoring program, and more. This programming needed to quickly adapt to meet students’ and families’ needs during the pandemic.

One example is RefugeeConnect’s Community Navigators, a multilingual team who provide intensive family support services. Collectively, they speak nine languages. When COVID-19 began, the Community Navigators stepped up to provide additional educational supports to students and families.

  • They serve as crucial liaisons with larger districts like Cincinnati Public Schools (OH) and Boone County Schools (KY), as well as with smaller districts around the region. Community Navigators support home-to-school connections by sharing school and district information in native languages (including school closures and reopening plans), connecting families to resources such as devices for e-learning, and creating understanding about virtual learning.
  • Community Navigators also support parents’ attendance at virtual parent-teacher conferences, help families access opportunities for enrichment programs, and empower parents to support their students with virtual and blended learning at home. They talk with parents about expectations, creating routines, and building a distraction-free home learning environment.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, RefugeeConnect has helped 100 families, with 282 children and youth from 24 zip codes and 5 counties, connect to over 140 community resources and benefits.

The Coalition for Refugees from Burma (CRB) in Washington State has also increased its communication and outreach efforts during the pandemic. CRB has provided many initiatives for refugee youth and families since its inception in 2009, including supporting students and families in Kent School District. During COVID-19, CRB has worked closely with Kent School District to help disseminate information in culturally and linguistically accessible ways. For example, this has included information on:

  • Laptop distribution and collection;
  • Setting up Canvas Observer accounts for parents;
  • The importance of attendance;
  • A virtual college fair; and
  • Messages from the superintendent and other administrators.

If you have the capacity, highlight your ability to support individual refugee students and families with accessing technology, supplemental tutoring, or any other individualized educational assistance needed.

For example, if you have an after-school or summer program (even if virtual), make sure key point people (see above) are aware of it. Demonstrate how to best support refugee students and families in culturally and linguistically appropriate ways. Key administrators will remember how your organization helped the school system reach some of the most vulnerable families during this difficult time. Post-pandemic, this could lead to more integrated programming and/or funding.

What Does this Look Like in Action?

Catherine McAuley Center in Cedar Rapids, Iowa has always supported refugee children as they enroll and engage in school, but since COVID-19, that assistance has increased:

  • Summer program: In the summer of 2020, staff and volunteers of the Catherine McAuley Center were able to support 14 students in a summer program that they hosted in a pavilion at a local park. Volunteers worked on pulling together a curriculum that focused on English acquisition in all four domains of listening, speaking, reading, and writing. In addition, the program provided students with an opportunity for social interaction and play. The program met for seven weeks.
  • Virtual learning site: Due to the derecho (similar to a tornado) that hit in August 2020, Cedar Rapids middle school and high school students were unable to go to school in person. Catherine McAuley Center temporarily opened its doors as a virtual learning site.  Students accessed the internet,   while parents learned to navigate online platforms and teacher instructions to support their children in completing their work. 
  • Afterschool program: Catherine McAuley Center is currently preparing to launch an afterschool program to continue to provide learning support to middle school and high school students. Students will be supported in a 3-hour after-school program on Wednesdays. This program will provide refugee students with homework assistance and an opportunity to practice English in a group and with a one-on-one tutor. It will help students get to know themselves as well as their new community. Lastly, the program will emphasize post-high school planning and exploring the many paths students have available to them.

The Coalition for Refugees from Burma (CRB) adapted their programming similarly:

  • Summer program: CRB’s summer 2020 program for high schoolers needed to be held virtually. The students met on Zoom, Tuesdays-Fridays from 2-4 pm, for one month. Participants focused on project-based learning and also went on virtual field trips.
  • Afterschool program for high school students: For years, CRB has offered an afterschool program for high school students attending Kent-Meridian High School. When COVID-19 became a concern, the program pivoted to meeting with students virtually, every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon, to help them with their homework.
  • Reading program for elementary students: This program virtually brings together elementary students in Kent to practice reading comprehension and storytelling through games and other activities.

Looking for more resources on connecting with schools? Contact Switchboard:

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