This past weekend, the NYT Sunday Magazine presented a package of words and images about refugee students in American schools, titled The New High-School Outsiders. Focused some of the roughly 1,300 refugees attending Boise, Idaho schools, it includes an overview essay, photographs, and profiles of a handful of Boise students who graduated high school last spring.
It’s not the first story focused on refugees in American schools — and, given the arrival of unaccompanied minors from Central America and refugees from the war in Syria, it’s unlikely to be the last. As the Times story notes, roughly 85,000 more refugees will be resettled this coming year, in 190 cities. Many of them will be school-age children who are legally entitled to a free public education. An August story from the Times showed the 231 towns where 10,000 Syrian refugees have already been settled over the past four years — many of them in mid-sized cities like Boise, rather than large hubs for immigration.
The combination of novelty, fear, and curiosity all but ensures that there will be many more refugee student stories during 2016-2017. The two main questions consider as the school year unfolds are (1) whether districts are providing refugee children an education that’s at least as good as the one they’re providing longtime students, and (2) are media outlets producing nuanced and accurate coverage of the experience?
Historically, first-generation immigrant children have generally done relatively well in American schools, picking up English language skills and often leapfrogging past native-born children from other disadvantaged groups. Late-arriving refugee students have not generally done as well, suffering from interrupted schooling in their home countries, trauma, and the challenges of relocating and learning English as an adolescent or teenager.
There’s also a long, sad history of fear in response to the arrival of refugees — and of occasional mistreatment of refugees and immigrants in the public education system. Some school districts have refused to educate refugee children, or offered them inadequate, low-level classes. Some have failed to provide adequate translation services for families that don’t speak English, and failed to protect students from harassment from fellow classmates.
Last year, in response to concerns about how districts were treating unaccompanied minors from Central America, the federal government reminded schools of services that may be needed – extra translators and teachers, specialized newcomer programs, and additional social services and supports.
Some refugee families settled in Elizabeth, New Jersey have pulled their kids out of public schools and sent them to private academies because of bullying and lack of Arabic speaking teachers, according to this WNYC report.
In a recent lawsuit, refugee students in Lancaster, Pennsylvania have claimed that “district administrators routinely sent older refugee students to a “disciplinary school” that subjected them to bullying, intense security protocols and an accelerated learning program that runs counter to conventional wisdom on the subject.”
The quality of interventions and supports matters a lot to how well or poorly refugees fare in the US. And the quality of the education that refugee students receive is a strong indicator about where resettlement is working.
By all accounts, meeting the needs of refugee students is not easy: “It’s a resource-intensive transition that these students are going through,” says Joe Luft, head of the Internationals Network For Public Schools. “I’ve never seen a school who has the resources to do this effectively without additional help.”
Even where social support resources are available, they’re not always tailored to refugee students’ needs, says Luft,whose organization works with 26 schools around the country work with refugee and immigrant children. “Most schools or districts don’t have the right resources, much less do it in a culturally responsive way.”
Educating refugee children is also something of a sprint. “There’s a tremendous sense of urgency because they have such a limited amount of time to complete their education,” he says “They have to meet the same academic standards [as non-refugee students] before they age out and can’t attend high school any longer.”
How newspaper readers and the general public feel about refugee students is going to be shaped in large part by how they’re portrayed in mainstream news coverage. Public opinion will help determine whether and how much investment there is in this population, and — indirectly — how many refugees the US admits.
Will media coverage of refugee students help readers understand a diverse group of kids and the educators charged with helping them learn, or will they present over-simplified and misleading reporting that may be factually correct but ends up not being very helpful?
A recent UNESCO report (Covering Migrations and Refugees – are media doing the right thing?) noted that that untrained reporters sometimes fail to pick up the relevance of differences between the terms “migrants”, “asylum-seekers” and “refugees” and — even more problematically — fall into the habit of characterizing refugee students too broadly, as either victims or threats.
Avoiding sensationalism in describing the arrival of refugee students is one obvious challenge. The Annie E. Casey Foundation’s annual Kids Count report notes that only about 3 percent of children in the US are born outside the country. And the Times notes that the number of refugees being accepted into the US now is much lower than it was for Cubans and Southeast Asians.
Avoiding sentimentality and laziness is another challenge. As noted in the Columbia Journalism Review, American media outlets quickly glommed onto a single New Jersey refugee family with a personable, English-speaking father — until the family stopped accepting interview requests.
Working journalists who’ve covered refugee and/or immigrant students have even more specific advice for their colleagues and competitors:
“I think religious practices and differences among refugees are important to keep in mind,” recommends the LA Times’ race and justice reporter, Jaweed Kaleem, hitting the theme of differentiation echoed by everyone contacted for this column. “And, related, what support systems outside of schools refugees may have.”
Refugee students differ widely in their backgrounds, experiences, and responses to being resettled here. They’re not blank slates, and have unique personalities, strengths, and roles that should be unearthed. Who were they back home, before they had to leave? How does their experience compare to their friends?
Where these kids come from, socioeconomically and culturally, can be extremely important, notes WNYC’s senior education reporter, Beth Fertig. “Family education and income level, the type of school they attended before they had to move, are all important pieces of the story. And whether they lived in refugee camps and had access to schools during the time of instability.”
Fertig also notes that boys and girls can have extremely different experiences before arriving – and in American schools, too. And she reminds us that some refugee families may be particularly press-shy. “Sometimes they prefer not to be identified in any way, no photos or don’t use the real voices. Their stories are what matter so do whatever you can to put them at ease and protect their identities.”
Journalists need to hear things from kids who speak other languages, be extremely careful about their questions, and put in enough time, says Brooke Hauser, the author and journalist who wrote The New Kids: Big Dreams and Brave Journeys at a High School for Immigrant Teens, based on her 2008 New York Times feature about immigrant and refugee kids in Brooklyn.
As part of her reporting, Hauser arranged for a translator from Eastern Burma in order to hear one girl’s story in her own words. She let students bring up painful memories on their own, rather than asking directly. And she hung out with students not just in class but also in the halls and cafeteria, informal spaces “where their personalities really emerged.” She went home with some of the students to meet their families, as well as to weddings and to the laundromat. “I went where they went. I tried to see the whole picture, or as much of it as they would show me.”
Last but not least: “I would allow more opportunities to give these students a voice and platform without the filter of a reporter,” says WNYC education reporter Yasmeen Khan. Her experience working on a project that put students front and center were “honest, raw and more informative of the immigrant experience than anything I could have reported in a radio feature myself.”
So far, at least, there haven’t been any egregious examples of simplistic or inaccurate coverage from mainstream outlets, according to those interviewed for this column.
However, the recent Times Magazine stories illustrate some of the challenges of presenting a nuanced, accurate picture of refugee students’ experiences — especially in a package that relies so much on images rather than words.
Dominated by images (several of them of uplifting prom and graduation scenes), there is little room to differentiate the students or give them life. The captions are boiled down to the bare essence of biographical information.
There’s little information about the students’ academic challenges, or their lives outside of school., and no room for outside experts on educating refugee students. The piece doesn’t mention any problems with the treatment of refugee students in Boise, or reference specific problems refugee students have experienced in other districts. And the group of students interviewed — refugees from Iraq, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, and other countries — all graduated high school and (with the exception of one) already started college.
[A much-admired 2013 documentary, “I Learn America,” describes the lives of immigrant and refugee teens in and out of school. “They’re not all equally successful,” says Luft. Students arriving and thriving in a short time happens sometimes but “that’s not the norm.”]
Last but not least, the Times included student voices, which some refugee coverage leaves out — but excluded the feelings and experiences of the Boise kids who grew up in the community. “It would have been interesting to hear from the non-refugee students how they perceived it,” says Luft. Like, what’s the white kid in the black hoodie on the cover image thinking?
Additional resources from the Migrant Policy Institute: Funding an Equitable Education, and Young Children of Refugees in the United States.
Recent examples of refugee student coverage: WNYC’s Camp For Young Refugees Teaches U.S. School Skills, the PBS NewsHour segment Helping Refugee Kids In School, AP’s story Refugee children being kept from enrolling in school, Chalkbeat Tennessee’s Nashville schools welcome displaced students, the Greensboro Record’s series Language, culture barriers slow learning for some students, and the Baltimore Sun’s three-part series Unsettled Journeys – Torn between two worlds.