July 2018
Jennifer Burr, Richardson Independent School District, Richardson, Texas, USA

I work for a large, suburban school district just outside of Dallas, Texas. We have a student enrollment of just under 40,000, with English Learners making up 25% of the total enrollment. Currently, we have around 250 students who are coded as refugees or currently seeking asylum. While that number is not as high as other districts in the area, all of these students reside within one particular attendance zone in our district. Due to this influx of refugee students, our district has decided to identify resources and supports that can best serve this particular population of students. After carefully considering multiple options and programs we have decided to implement a high school level course for newcomers that will address their social and emotional needs as well as provide another opportunity to acquire and practice English during their school day. With this decision there are several factors that we will need to work through for successful implementation of this program in the 2018-2019 school year. Allocations of personnel, campus administrator buy-in, student engagement, and teacher training are all factors that will impact the effectiveness of this initiative.

Our district recognized that many newcomer students were lacking the social and emotional skills needed to function at a successful level within their new environment. Our teachers have identified the skills that are needed to assist students in dealing with conflict and anger management, implementation of personal goals and connection of those to larger social goals, and identification and navigation through problematic social situations. With these skills taught as a foundation, our ELs will be empowered with strategies to successfully adapt to their new school environment.

This course was designed as a .5 (1 semester) or 1.0 (full year) credit elective course that provides students who participate in an English as a Second Language (ESL) program the necessary knowledge and skills required for successful acclimation to their new community and educational environment. Students enrolled in this class will learn skills necessary for navigating social situations, such as conflict resolution, communication, decision making, and cultural awareness. The essential knowledge and skills of the course include, but are not limited to, the following:

    1. Students will learn appropriate social skills in educational, social, and work environments.

    2. Students will learn about the culture of their new community and country.

    3. Students will develop skills in understanding and managing situations involving conflict.

    Michigan and Massachusetts provide courses similar to this, and each were used as a framework in the development phase of this course. The Texas Education Agency also suggests using resources and materials from the Collaborative for Academic Social and Environmental Learning. The Sheltered Instructional Observational Protocol (SIOP) Model for English learners, which was developed by Jana Echevarria, Mary Ellen Vogt and Deborah J. Short, contains some of the required activities included in the course design. The SIOP Model is a research-based instructional model that allows teachers to plan and deliver lessons that allow English learners to acquire academic knowledge as they develop English language proficiency. Our district also participates in the Dallas Area Refugee Forum, which is a community partnership that includes area school districts, healthcare providers, refugee resettlement organizations, social services, and police and fire departments. These alliances have enabled our district to identify the needs of our students and connect them with the community organizations that can provide help.

    Teacher selection and training for this course is the most important component in this process. This is a course where the teacher must cultivate a culture of trust between them and their students, as well as trust of the students with each other. The classroom must be regarded as a safe place to ask questions and take academic risks without fear of ridicule. We are currently partnering with surrounding school districts to develop the lesson materials for this course, and once the campus identifies the teacher who will be teaching this course, we will conference with them to make sure they understand what the course is designed to accomplish and is comfortable with the lesson design. The state requires that teachers of this course have a minimum of two years of teaching experience, ESL academy or similar experience, and be a highly qualified teacher as determined by federal standards.

    We have met with campus administration throughout this process to make sure they are fully aware of what this course is designed to do, and they are excited to be able to offer this course to students that need this additional level of support. They have been willing to use some of their campus faculty allocations in order to offer this course, which is an important part of buy-in at the campus level.

    Although it has been a process to bring this program to fruition, we are excited about offering a course that addresses the affective needs of our students and provides them with tools they can use to meet the challenges of being in a new country. We have engaged the administrators, focused on recruiting the right teachers, enlisted community partners, and have identified the right students for this course, and we are excited to see this group of students flourish in their new surroundings.

    Jennifer Burr currently serves as the Secondary ELL Specialist for Richardson Independent School District in Texas. Dr. Burr has been an educator for 17 years and has an Ed. D in Education Leadership with an emphasis in multiculturalism and diversity. Her research focuses on effective teaching practices of core content-area teachers who work with large numbers of English learners.