When it comes to soccer the only thing you need to communicate is your feet. There’s no official language associated with the international sport, you just need passion and a great pair of goal-kicking legs. Glenn L. Downs Social Sciences Academy student Ali has those two things and he displays them on the field at school every day.
He also has a past most American students do not. He came to this country on the heels of a major U.S. policy move. The American military evacuation in Afghanistan brought him to Fort Hood, Texas where he and his 21-year-old sister were taken in by members of a non-profit refugee group, and this winter he started school as a 7th grader at Downs in Maryvale.
Ali is part of the Cartwright School District‘s Immigration/Refugee Scholar and Family Support Program that was started this 2021-2022 school year, the first of its kind for the district. A total of 832 scholars take part in the program that helps refugee and immigrant families ease into the education system and become successful.
One hundred and one of those students come from refugee camps in African nations like Tanzania, Rwanda, Kenya, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The next largest group is from Myanmar/Burma but the fastest-growing group is from Afghanistan. None are fluent in English and most come from war-torn and poverty-stricken countries.
“The first thing we do is a needs assessment,” says TOSA Christa Schwaiger, who is in charge of the program. “Then welcome them in their native language through a translator. We extend warmth immediately to them because communication is critical early on.”
Once the needs assessment and welcome have occurred, the district provides much-needed resources for the new scholars in the form of access to the district’s food pantry, clothing closet, medical clinic, and other district resources.
The first phase of the program establishes connections with families, the second phase ensures two-way communication, and the third equitable language access. Schwaiger acts as a liaison between schools and families offering services like Language Line and translators to better communicate with families and scholars.
Aside from that first assessment, Schwaiger says the most important question she will ever ask refugee and immigrant families is: “What are your hopes and dreams for your children?” Once that has been answered and the district responds with tangible ways in which to make dreams a reality, parents have bought into the district’s efforts to educate.
“That’s when our parents become excited and parent-partnering begins and engagement becomes more seamless,” Schwaiger says.
Educators know that once parents take a strong interest in their children’s education, grades tend to go up and growth begins. Home visits are also part of the program and Schwaiger hopes to eventually implement a multi-cultural library of essential district forms for families and add multi-lingual support specialists to enhance education. Cartwright already has a 92% Hispanic student population with Spanish translations a common practice in the district’s communication plans since the 1980s.
The program appears to be helping Ali because he’s thrilled to be in school and is now part of “the three amigos,” a group of boys on the Downs campus that love to play soccer and excel in school. His other two closest friends speak Spanish and Swahili.
“You would not know there is any difference in them when you see them interact as scholars,” says Downs Principal Vivian Nash.
As for his English, it’s getting better but Ali still speaks his native Farsi and his teachers use Google Translate to communicate with him every day. Nash says it’s both challenging and rewarding.
Unfortunately, the situation at home is still uncertain. Ali’s parents are stuck in Afghanistan but he is thriving, learning, and scoring his share of soccer goals at Glenn L. Downs Academy of Social Sciences in Phoenix.