Wearing a colorful Native American headdress made of construction paper, Aziz joins his classmates in a Thanksgiving lesson about pilgrims who fled England in search of freedom. It’s a story that resonates with the fourth-grader at Tusculum Elementary School, which has a sizeable and growing refugee population.
Originally from Afghanistan, Aziz tells teacher Devon Garrett that he also left his home — because of “mean people” with machine guns.
Such harrowing stories are among the real-world lessons in Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, which continues to serve a diverse and growing refugee population amid a recent wave of anti-refugee sentiment in America. Some students are from Syria, and school officials say they’re more committed than ever to serving their share of the hundreds of thousands of people being displaced by war in Syria.
“Whether they’re a refugee, immigrant or native-born, when they’re in our school system, then we must give them the best education possible,” said Kevin Stacy, director of English language learner programs for the Nashville district. “They deserve the quality of an equal education.”
Nashville’s refugee population has been growing since the 1990s when Kurdish refugees began settling in the city during the first Gulf war. Since then, a steady stream of school-age refugees have arrived in Nashville. Garrett has a new student in her class almost every week from countries including Syria, Iraq, Myanmar, Bhutan and Somalia.
The district serves 830 refugee students, or about 1 percent of its 86,000 students.
To meet both personal and academic needs, the school system partners with churches and nonprofit organizations to create a web of support for refugee students and their families. Together, they provide clothes, food and legal services.
Most of the district’s refugee students attend schools in the south Nashville community of Tusculum, where Jeger Ali, who is fluent in Kurdish and Arabic, works for the school district as a family engagement specialist.
“Imagine not knowing the language, not knowing anyone,” said Ali, himself a former refugee. “When (families) see someone who speaks the language, maybe from the community, it’s helpful.”
Ali moved to Nashville seven years ago from Iraq, where he was a translator for the U.S. military. He came to Nashville to be near family who moved as Kurdish refugees during the 1990s. His parents still live in Iraq and are seeking refugee status to join him in the United States.
Because of his background and linguistic skills, Ali understands the challenges of refugee families and is an invaluable resource for newly arrived parents who have lots of questions about schools. The very idea of a family engagement specialist is strange to refugees from many other nations, where parents aren’t as involved in a child’s schooling.
Tusculum principal Alison McMahon says newly arrived parents meeting with her often nod in agreement with the plans she details for their child. “That’s not always good because parents know their kids better than anyone,” she said.
In addition to providing family engagement specialists who advocate for refugee students, the district offers adult English classes and a parent ambassador program that pairs parents with bilingual parent mentors.
At Tusculum, school leaders are especially in tune with the needs of the school’s refugee families. During Thanksgiving week, the students toted home bags of rice and beans nearly as big as they were. At the district level, legal services are provided for parents who need help navigating leases and avoiding scams.
“We understand that families aren’t going to do well if they’re worried about something,” said Kevin Stacy, director of English learner services.
For Stacy and Ali, the job is not only to educate refugees but to educate educators too.
“We help educate the district on what does it mean to learn a language and be a refugee at the same time? What is it like to come from a war-torn area?” Stacy said.
Many teachers choose Tusculum to work with students from other cultures. Nearly all of Kim Fuller’s first- and second-grade students have siblings across the hall in Garrett’s class.
Previously, she taught at Kirkpatrick Elementary, a majority black school, and loved it. “I thought I would be there forever,” she said. But when more English language learners were introduced to Kirkpatrick through a rezoning, she fell in love with the challenge, earned her EL certification, and ended up at Tusculum.
With Nashville’s growing refugee and immigrant population, the district needs more educators like Fuller and Garrett and more translators like Ali.
“These kids are sweet as pie, but this is maybe my most difficult class because they don’t understand,” said Tusculum computer teacher Clinton Johnson. He is not EL-certified but, on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, he was in constant motion helping Garrett’s students with a typing program. Kids kept getting stuck at the same place — when the instructions told them to type an “F,” instead of clicking on it.
Overall, Johnson and other teachers at Tusculum consider the students a source of vibrancy, despite the challenges. It’s not just the new arrivals who get an education on American culture; their Nashville-born peers get to learn about other cultures too.
The diversity is a source of pride at Tusculum. One hallway bulletin board displays a map showing where all of the school’s refugee students came from, with pictures of their smiling faces. Native-born students enjoy helping their new neighbors and like to learn words in different languages. And political tensions around refugees haven’t thus far impacted students, according to educators, who say that bullying doesn’t stray from elementary school norms.
The goal is for students like Aziz eventually to be in mainstream classes — a satisfying transition that Ali understands from personal experience. His cousins were students like those in Garrett’s class when they arrived in Nashville more than 20 years ago, fresh out of refugee camps in Turkey.
“And now, they are doctors and registered nurses and policemen and teachers,” he said. “They’re part of the community.”