Ledes from the Land of Enchantment

Santa Fe schools, groups try to welcome influx of new student arrivals | Education

It’s a Thursday at Milagro Middle School, and a group of middle school-age students in local poet Alejandro Jimenez’s classroom are revisiting the streets of their hometowns — some thousands of miles away — through sensory poems.

Students listening to the works read aloud learn Chihuahua, Mexico, tastes like tamales and Afghanistan sounds like music.

The purpose of the exercise is for each student to share the sights, sounds, smells, tastes and textures of their home countries while practicing English. It’s part of Santa Fe Public Schools’ recently designed Newcomer Language Academy for kids who are new to the US and have brought their native languages ​​with them.

“What does your country look like?” Jimenez, who speaks Spanish, asks the class. “Where I am from in Colima, there’s a volcano, a volcán … is your country flat? Are there mountains?”

One Afghan boy, who started attending Kearny Elementary School last year and will soon head to middle school, is remembering the wildlife of his hometown of Kabul, Afghanistan: snakes, vultures and other large birds. He’s recalling the scents: flowers and hot food.

The district enrolled 226 students who moved directly from outside the US to Santa Fe during the past school year. That includes children from Afghanistan who were forced to resettle after fleeing the country following the US pullout a year ago.

The Newcomer Language Academy, funded by $64,000 in federal pandemic relief funds, is meant to reach as many of those students as possible through English language classes and bonding activities. Its goal: to help students feel more prepared when school starts next month.

The academy wrapped up Friday with an enrollment of about 70 students, including 19 from Afghanistan, five from Nigeria and one from Russia — plus many others from Central American nations such as Guatemala, Mexico, Honduras and El Salvador.

Students spent most of the time receiving English instruction in the classroom. But the academy also offered cooking and poetry classes from outside contractors and art classes — activities to help them get acclimated to life in the US in general, not just through language acquisition.

Organizers also led two field trips, and pandemic funds covered daily bus transportation to and from Milagro.

“Our goals were to increase English language proficiency but also give students an opportunity to be more comfortable being in a school environment in the US,” said Meaghan McCormick, an English language coach with the district who helped conceptualize and design much of the three- week program for students ranging from kindergarten to 12th grade.

McCormick spent much of July watching academy participants take more risks: inviting other students to eat lunch together; speaking up in class. It’s a sign, she said, the environment feels safe and level. Everyone is trying to learn a language.

The first week was themed around self identity, McCormick said, while the second week was focused on school environments.

The third week, she said, expands out of the classroom and into the city of Santa Fe.

“What are features of living in a community?” she said. “What do you like about living in this community?”

McCormick said while students are not being assessed for language improvement at the academy, the district is set to monitor the scores of a federally required annual exam for English-language learners known as ACCESS.

She said the district also will take a look at state tests that measure proficiency in subjects like math and science.

Six district teachers led the core instructional classrooms at the academy, McCormick said. All but one have endorsements either in teaching English as a second language or bilingual education or both.

But none speaks fluent Pashto or Dari, the two official languages ​​of Afghanistan. McCormick noted most teachers have Spanish-language experience, but classrooms are relying on visual aids that help students regardless of their home languages.

Heading into the school year, McCormick acknowledged newcomer students in the district will need English-language instructional time — a task she added is compounded by a lack of teachers qualified to teach English as an additional language.

“We’re going to need to work as a district to make sure we’re best meeting the needs of [these] students and their families,” she said.

Superintendent Hilario “Larry” Chavez said the district is still “teasing out” the need for a task force that would help link families to outside resources.

Miraj Bukhari-Frayer, who founded Santa Fe Refugee Collaborative, a local nonproft, said adjusting to life in America is going to be easier for younger students who will have more time in structured school settings to adjust and learn English.

“English as a second language has been taxing, especially on our adult language learners,” Bukhari-Frayer said, adding that’s particularly true for adults who don’t read or write in their native language.

One arm of her group, composed of volunteers, is working with 14 families who moved to Santa Fe from Afghanistan in 2021. They help find translation resources, permanent housing and social opportunities.

While the collaborative provides assistance, Lutheran Family Services of the Rocky Mountains is the official resettlement agency charged with helping Afghan families in New Mexico build lives in the US

The collaborative was formed in 2016, when an influx of refugee families from Syria, Afghanistan and the Central African Republic settled in Santa Fe without the guidance of a resettlement agency. Since then, Bukhari-Frayer said, policies of the Donald Trump presidential administration slowed refugee resettlement in the US until last year.

She noted many families from Afghanistan hail from urban hubs like Kabul and may have aided the US military in the country.

Others may be coming from more rural areas with different craft skills. But all are making new lives in America following the US departure and a swift Taliban takeover.

As of March, 76,000 families evacuated Afghanistan to the US and are working to navigate housing and citizenship, according to the Washington Post. In December 2021, Lutheran Family Services estimated about 100 refugees from Afghanistan would arrive in Santa Fe, many after living in makeshift camps on Holloman Air Force Base or other bases.

The transition hasn’t been easy. Sponsors and volunteers say Afghan families who have relocated here worry about loved ones still in the country and fear word of their relocation here could lead to harm for those back home.

While Bukhari-Frayer has flitted between appointments, helping newly arrived families navigate meetings with government agencies and workplaces, she’s also concerned with making cultural connections that will cement the lives of people starting over in Santa Fe.

Before many families arrived last year, she and other volunteers circulated through local high schools to give students and teachers a better idea of ​​what a refugee is and what culture and faith in Afghanistan looks like — and how they relate to New Mexico.

Bukhari-Frayer, who is Muslim, said she found many students hadn’t met a Muslim before. But she noted kids in New Mexico and Afghanistan have some things in common.

“We talked about cultures and traditions that are familiar to us,” she said. “We respect our elders, and Afghan culture is very much about respecting your elders.”

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