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Easing the Transition

December 13, 1987|Mark Arax

REFUGEES AS A group have outworked and outperformed their American-born classmates, dispelling fears that large numbers would follow their parents into welfare or low-paying jobs.

But in 1983, local educators began swapping stories of a significant number of young refugees who were having problems ranging from simple frustration and withdrawal to dropping out and joining gangs.

So in 1985, the State Department's Bureau of Refugee Programs built small versions of American high schools--complete with 40-minute periods and bells, libraries, locker rooms and baseball diamonds--in refugee camps in the Philippines and Thailand. There, children ages 12 to 16 who are bound for America receive 20 weeks of English, math and social and cultural training. A recent study of the program--Preparation for American Secondary Schools (PASS)--found that twice as many PASS refugees were rated "above average" by their American schools as those who didn't attend the program. A similar program was added this year for the children 6 to 11 years old.

When they arrive in a community, refugees are met by their sponsors, processed through a central resettlement office and introduced to myriad social services and programs offering job and language training. The emphasis is on finding work quickly. Resettlement agencies are ill-equipped to deal with emotional and psychological traumas.

Some school districts have tried to soften the transition by hiring what few Chinese- and Vietnamese-speaking teachers and aides they could find and by opening orientation centers where refugees receive a semester of concentrated language and cultural training before moving onto the larger campus.

Still, say refugee leaders and school administrators, more is needed. "The situation today is no longer a crisis, but the lack of Vietnamese- and Cantonese-speaking teachers has had an adverse effect," says Bob Diaz, principal at Garvey Intermediate in Rosemead.

While some schools have steadily improved their systems for assessing and placing refugees in the proper grades, far too many teen-agers, authorities acknowledge, continue to fall through the cracks.

Kenji Ima, a San Diego State University sociology professor, says older refugee youths who lack basic skills are likely to be frustrated in high schools. They "would best benefit from a practical skills program where they are also taught a vocation. Once they acquire a skill that they can sell to an employer, there's nothing to prevent them from later attending a community college."

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