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Amid Decline In Refugee Students, Fort Worth ISD Changes ESL Program

This fall, the Trump administration announced it's lowering the annual cap on the number of refugees allowed into the U.S. That change is affecting how Fort Worth Independent School District is teaching some of its newcomers.

Sharon Darnell is a specialized English as a Second Language teacher in the Fort Worth ISD. She spends most of the school day going from class to class. 

On this November day, she's pushing a cart with word flash cards, books and sound charts to her next stop.

“Okay, so if I asked you one of these words, could you tell me what it means?” Darnell asks a student named Steven. “Avoid. What does avoid mean?”

“To set,” Steven says.

The word is actually “to stay,” Darnell points out.

Steven tries again. “To stay away fr-fro-from.”

“Good job,” Darnell says.

Steven, a fourth grader from Rwanda, is one of 30 English Language Learners Darnell works with at Seminary Hills Park Elementary School. The campus is in south Fort Worth across the street from apartments where a lot of families from around the world live.

“We support areas where the students are lacking, either some English or some background knowledge,” Darnell says. “But they do need the basics of English, so sounds of words, vowel sounds, phonics.”

The Trump administration's decision to lower the number of refugees allowed into the U.S. annually from 30,000 to 18,000 people is affecting school districts, like Fort Worth ISD, just as it's affecting refugee resettlement agencies. For the last few years, the school district has seen its number of refugee students decline. Fewer newcomers has resulted in the district discontinuing its Language Center Program in elementary schools. 

Prior to this school year, the district had language centers at 13 elementary campuses. Students whose native language isn’t English or Spanish were placed there with the goal of transitioning them to a regular classroom in two years.

Karen Neal oversees the district’s ESL program. She says the district was expecting to have only 50 refugee students in elementary school this year, and that's just not enough to justify having language centers.

Neal also says the district is seeing fewer older ESL students as well.

“We have lost a lot of our numbers at middle school,” Neal says. “We still have larger numbers at high school, but depending upon what the federal government does with immigration, you know, at any moment that may change.”

This school year, there’s a specialized ESL teacher at 11 elementary schools with the highest number of English language learners. These students come from all over the world.

“Honduras and the South African countries, and previously, when the refugee camps were still open in Nepal and Myanmar, we had larger numbers of those students.” Neal says.

Sharon Darnell used to teach her own beginner’s class for English learners and there was also a class for intermediate students. Now, she pulls kids out of their classrooms or works alongside their regular teacher.

“So this year, I’m having my beginners and my intermediates in the same group in the same classroom,” Darnell says. “So I’m seeing students who need to learn their ABCs along with students who can read a little already.”

On this morning, Darnell pops into a classroom where students like Gilaine are learning vocabulary words.

“Hey Gilaine, you learned about distraction?” she asks a student. “Do you remember what it means?”

“Yes, it’s something that makes people or animals want to look away or think about something else,” Gilaine says.

“Okay,” Darnell says. “Do we need to be focused sometimes?”

“Yeah,” Gilaine says.

Darnell says one of the best things about her job is that her students are eager to learn. Some didn’t have enough schooling in the countries they came from and some went through unimaginable trauma.

“They’ve seen bombs go up. They’ve seen people get blown away. They’ve seen guns come out and kill their family members,” she says. “They’ve been without food, without clothing. They have experienced the most extreme things.”

That’s why, Darnell says, she understands if her students struggle to learn new words or forget to do their homework. It’s also why she’ll keep teaching.

Stella M. Chávez is KERA’s immigration/demographics reporter/blogger. Her journalism roots run deep: She spent a decade and a half in newspapers – including seven years at The Dallas Morning News, where she covered education and won the Livingston Award for National Reporting, which is given annually to the best journalists across the country under age 35.