SCSD Students New to the United States Experience First School Experience at ‘Welcome Academy’Imagine being in a new country: You don’t speak the language. You don’t know anyone outside of your family. And it’s the first day of school.
For 36 immigrants and 289 refugee students coming to the Syracuse City School District this year, this is a reality that comes with great trepidation.
“We weren’t familiar with the bus system,” Ismail Zaman Zhirzad, a freshman at Henninger, shared. “We didn’t know our bus number on the first day, so we had to ask someone which bus goes to Butternut Street. And we didn’t know how to go from one class to another. Someone took us [Ismail and his brother, Shir Zaman, are in the same classes] to our first class but didn’t show us where to go next.”
Ismail Zaman and his three siblings are all new to the Syracuse area, having come from Afghanistan. Through a Nationality Worker serving as a translator, they described the major difference between schools in the United States and Afghanistan: the school day was only three hours long in Afghanistan. Because there were fewer schools and more students, the schools had to rotate students through each day.
“There were a lot more students in our classes back in Afghanistan,” Ismail Zaman added. “It was loud! We can learn better here because the classes are small, and the teachers can answer our questions because there are fewer students.”
Thanks to special funding the SCSD received this year, refugee and immigrant students in kindergarten through 12th grade have had the opportunity to participate in a two-week Welcome Academy. The academies, offered several times throughout the year, will be funded for five years in total. They are a collaborative effort between SCSD English as a New Language (ENL) staff and Catholic Charities, created with the purpose of providing refugee and immigrant students with a more positive first experience entering the American school environment.
Each Academy serves as an orientation, teaching students about school and classroom culture, teaching basic ENL lessons, and ensuring that all registration requirements are completed for students to begin school at the end of the two-week session.
In the first week, students become familiar with classroom routines and school-related vocabulary. They practice lining up, pushing in their chairs, and writing their names. They practice these skills over and over, in different ways – by incorporating games. They may write their names in Play-Doh, for instance! They practice basic commands like asking to use the bathroom or transitioning to circle time. They dance and sing.
In the second week, students focus on basic English. They learn to create simple sentences and practice reading, writing and communication. They get an introduction to school buses. They watch videos to orient them to cafeteria procedures. They talk about emotions and how to express what they feel and express their needs and wants – discussing words they may use in a nurse’s instance, for example.
“We learned a lot of things to get us ready for school,” Sonaya Shirzad, an 8th grade student at Frazer, recalled. “We learned how to ask and answer questions like ‘how old are you.’ We learned the basic things like how to communicate with our classmates. We know how to ask for help.”
“We learned more in two weeks of Welcome Academy than 1 month in our school,” Shir Zaman, a freshman at Henninger, said. “We are learning many different subjects in school, but at Welcome Academy, we were just learning English – so we were able to learn so much! We learned the basic things we needed to know to go so school – the important things. ‘I am a new student,’ ‘I need to go to the bathroom.’ ‘I can’t find my class.’ ‘I am sick.’”
Sonaya noted that she hasn’t had any major challenges adjusting to school here in America, noting that if she has trouble understanding a class, teachers provide a computer for her to access Google Translate. She said that she has made new friends already – who speak English, not her native Dari, but she hasn’t found any trouble communicating.
Elizabeth Deng, ENL Language Assessor and Welcome Academy Program Coordinator, said the comfort level of the students as the academies progress has been inspiring.
“From the first day to the last day, in students’ pre- and post-assessments, we saw gains in their vocabulary,” Ms. Deng shared. “But the biggest difference we noted is their level of comfort in the classroom. The first day, no one is talking – they’re very apprehensive. By the last day, they’re animated – they’re participating in activities, they’re singing. Starting in a new school, in a new culture, is scary. But these academies give students a little more comfort and readiness to start school.”
Rabi Ullah Shirzad is in first grade at Frazer. His parents explained that he cried on the first day of Welcome Academy and for his first few days of school, but has since made a friend from Afghanistan and is doing well.
“I like everything about school!” Rabi Ullah said. “I like to study and learn.”
What has he learned? Rabi counted in English from 1-40, grinning.
Ms. Deng noted that the program also helps get students excited about socializing. For some, relocation can feel isolating, if the only interactions they have had since arriving to Syracuse were with siblings and family members. The academy gives them a chance to meet others their own age, with similar backgrounds – some who even speak the same language! That’s the goal of the Welcome Academy: to help students gain enough familiarity and comfort with the norms and expectations within our schools that they feel more comfortable on their first day.
“We’re a city that resettles a lot of refugee students,” Ms. Deng said. “We receive a large number of those in the SCSD. It’s important that we are finding ways to be a place that welcomes refugees, as a district and as a community. Our schools do a phenomenal job. But this is a way, even before they reach the school, that says ‘we welcome you and want to support you and give you all the tools you need to be successful emotionally, academically, and socially.’ These programs communicate that, and I love that it happens even before they reach the school building – we’re giving them tools to help them get started!”
In addition to the daily lessons at the Welcome Academy, the grant also allows each student to receive a backpack and basic school supplies. Funding also allows the SCSD to collaborate with resettlement agencies, enabling greater support for families. This means that the Refugee and Immigrant Student Welcome Program (RISWP) can also train staff on trauma and cultural sensitivity and assist with parental and family engagement.
Before the end of the Welcome Academy, each student visits the ENL Intake Office, where they provide background information about their previous schooling and parents or guardians have the opportunity to express any concerns.
“This information is all shared directly with the school’s ENL teacher,” Ms. Deng explained. “It’s truly a wholistic opportunity to make sure everything is all set for these kids. We want to make sure they are seen, heard, and feel welcomed. We want to make sure that we have taken every opportunity to make sure they have what they need to feel supported and be successful.”