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Rutland Schools And Pre-K Centers Prepare For The Arrival Of Refugees

Nina Keck
Patricia Alonso heads Rutland City School's English Language Learners Program and will be leading efforts to integrate Syrian and Iraqi refugee students in Rutland.

School officials in Rutland say they’re ready for the arrival of refugee families later this month. But the Rutland County Parent Child Center, which works with younger children and babies, say it's not ready — and it blames a lack of resources.

When refugee families begin arriving in Rutland later this month, one of the priorities will be to register any children for school, a process that will start with medical exams, immunizations and assessments. 

For those 6 years and older:  

Patricia Alonso heads Rutland High School's world Language Department and teaches Spanish and German.

She's also directs the school district’s English Language Learners (E.L.L.) program and will lead the efforts to help refugee children find a place among the city’s schools.

"We expect that some of them may not have been at school and therefore there could possibly have been some home schooling from parents,” says Alonso. “So we’re going to try and peel back the layers and see where they are and where we’re going to take them.”

Alonso says they’ve set up a special classroom across town, at the Rutland Intermediate School, where refugee kids age 6 and up will start. 

First, she says they’ll assess what the students know in their own language to find out where they are academically, socially and psychologically. At the same time, she says they’ll begin teaching basic English and invite parents in for family meetings.

She says several Arabic speakers in the community have offered to be interpreters.

Alonso believes her own experience growing up in a refugee family will also help. “I understand what it feels like to be different and to not speak the language,” she says. “I’m what’s known as a third-culture kid, and I was raised outside of the culture of my parents.”

Alonso’s parents are German and Cuban. The family fled Cuba during the revolution.

As an educator, she says it's important to value a student's native language. But children who speak one language at home and another at school often deal with what’s called "interference in learning," and she says many need special help to overcome it.

“And I understand that whole concept. I lived it, I’ve studied it,” says Alonso. “So I feel very comfortable in this arena, and I’m really looking forward to getting to work with the Syrians and Iraqis and anyone else who wants to come.”

“These students will teach us as much as we teach them,” says Alonso.

Credit Nina Keck / VPR
Mary Moran is superintendent of Rutland City Schools. She says her staff is ready to handle the needs of Syrian and Iraqi refugee children, the first of whom are expected to arrive later this month.

But she and Rutland City School Superintendent Mary Moran admit a bigger challenge will be addressing the psychological trauma their new students have endured.

They say Rutland Mental Health has a social worker with extensive experience working with victims of trauma, torture and those forced to resettle. That person will be able to assist school counselors when needed. 

Mary Moran says school staff has also been trained in this area.

“Two years ago, all of our psychologists and counselors went through a 30-hour graduate level course on trauma-informed education, and all of our staff have gone through a 15-hour webinar on that topic," she says. "Because many children who we receive have had trauma in their lives.”

Moran says a number of teachers and counselors attended a special class on the Syrian refugee crisis and multi-cultural teaching techniques, and they gave presentations to fellow faculty members at each public school in the city. She says they’ve had staff members go up to Winooski to talk with educators and counselors there, and they’ve had guest speakers come in to discuss innovative ways to teach culturally- and linguistically-diverse students.

"There are a lot of unknowns," admits Moran, "but we're as ready as we can be."

Critics of resettlement have argued that the new arrivals will increase school spending in Rutland. But Moran disagrees, and says at most they may need to hire an additional E.L.L. teacher, which she says will have a minimal impact on their budget. 

But what about the babies?

Across town at the Rutland County Parent Child Center, 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds are busy learning how to play.

Caprice Hover, the center’s executive director, says they serve 100 kids a day in Rutland, and are one of several nonprofits that offer pre-K classes. 

She says their agency also provides early intervention services for the state, and is required by law to serve all children under the age of 3 who show any sort of delay.

“So there is no question in my mind, when we’re talking about a refugee population that is coming from an extreme trauma background, that we’re going to be seeing these children," Hover says.

But Hover says her agency, like many in early education, is underfunded, so cost is a big concern.

"We are funded 30 percent less than the public school system, when you talk about salaries and programming and things like that," she says. So she says interpreters and consultants are not something she’s been able to budget for.

“I want to know how we’re going to best care for the little guys, who are zero to 3 [years old], who may have trauma delays, who may have speech delays,” says Hover.  

Credit Nina Keck / VPR
Caprice Hover is executive director of the Rutland County Parent Child Center, which provides pre-K services and early intervention screenings for children 3 and under.

"When we don’t have an ability to raise money to bring in specialists to talk about cultural and linguistic differences and things like that, I’m very concerned about it. Because we, in our early intervention program, have federal guidelines. We need to make contact within 48 hours,” she explains. “We need to have them engaged within 30 days. So if there’s a language barrier, or it takes me a long time to get an interpreter, how am I going to meet my federal mandates when I’m struggling to find the resources?” Hover asks.

Hover says from what she's read, 60 percent of the Syrian refugees that come to the United States are under the age of 18. "Those families have children under the age of 6, so can we look at it as a family unit as opposed to this child happens to be in the Rutland public schools and this child is in early education? Can we work together on that and share resources more?"

Hover understands the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program will be working with the families, but she says it's not clear if their interpreters will be able to work with her staff as well.

She says despite three meetings in Rutland, she hasn’t gotten a clear answer from the state refugee coordinator, Denise Lamoureux, as to how interpreters are paid for. And Hover says most of the interpreters for hire are in Chittenden County.

“Until I have a client walk through the door and I need to figure out how this is going to happen, I’m not sure how that’s going to happen," Hover says. "It’s going to be a cost of ours that I need to take from some other program, and that’s what is frustrating — I’m taking this from some other kid.”

Despite that, Hover feels strongly that the refugees should come to Rutland, and that her agency will do its best to serve them. But she admits she's glad they're arriving gradually.

"Because, and I hate to say this, unfortunately for the first couple families who are coming to us, we're going to learn by making mistakes," she says. "And that's not what I want to do with a family that's coming from such a traumatic background."

When contacted by email, Denise Lamoureux deferred the question of cost to Vermont’s Child Development Division. A spokeswoman responded that Children’s Integrated Services does cover the costs for interpreter services for development assessments, including for children of refugees.

Update 12:20 p.m. 1/12/17  A courtesy file photo of a teacher and children at the Rutland County Parent Child Center has been removed from this post. The photo was published with prior approval, but has been removed at the request of the center, which no longer employs the teacher.

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