Manchester (NH) School District
Involving Refugee Parents in the Manchester Public Schools
Program Objectives and Unique Needs Addressed
There are three main parts to the Manchester School District's efforts to involve refugee parents in their children's education:
- The Welcoming Center
- Family Understanding Nights (FUN)
- Cultural Competency Workshops, including Refugee Parent Panels
- B.R.I.N.G. I.T.!!! (Bringing Refugees, Immigrants, and Neighbors Gently Into Tomorrow)
The objective of the program is to help refugee families integrate into the school and the larger community in a manner that includes food, fellowship, and fun. In addition, teachers, administrators, and other community members are provided with opportunities to get to know the newest families in town.
Currently, there are roughly 10,000 immigrant and refugee families in Manchester, which is drastically different from ten years ago. The main pieces of Manchester's program have developed and evolved over the past four years. The effort to engage refugee families began with a Multicultural Competency Committee, which consisted of teachers and administrators. Discussions and research on Portland, Maine's school program, led to the development of the Welcoming Center. In March 2005, the Somali Bantu arrived and the need for cultural orientation to the schools increased. Parents had many questions and were not feeling especially welcome, which led to the development of FUN nights. Along the way, cultural competency trainings were held for teachers and other school staff, which often prompted them to get involved in the FUN nights. As parents learned more and more though the FUN nights, they became empowered to make their needs known. Not only have refugee parents used their voices to help create the B.R.I.N.G. I.T.!!! program, but a number of refugees have met with high level administrators, including the superintendent.
- The Welcoming Center registers refugee students in late August with the cooperation of the Health Department. Refugee students make "one stop" at the Health Department to get all of the required immunizations, register for school, and take an English placement exam. Having a central location prevents families from being shuffled from one school to another. In addition, teachers are often present to introduce themselves, and interpreters are available to explain the basics of the school system and culture.
- Family Understanding Nights (FUN) occur once a month and nights where refugee families gather at a central school to eat, have fun, and get information on a variety of issues and concerns. Some topics relate specifically to school, while others are general issues that impact the families and their integration into the local community.
Typical Agenda: The 200-300 refugee guests are provided with dinner. After dinner, the 60-70 children are provided with activities ranging from dance lessons to art instruction to athletic contests. Meanwhile, the parents are divided into small, intense focus groups with interpreters and provided with practical information on various topics such as food preparation safety, obtaining a driver's license, literacy activities, or how to buy a home. Besides the parents, each focus group typically consists of a school social worker, interpreter, and a representative from an appropriate community organization to provide the information. The refugee parents direct the content of these sessions and make requests for what type of information they would like to receive the following month. On any given FUN night, the content for each ethnic focus group is different, which allows for the specific community needs to be addressed.
Logistics: Each month's FUN night is driven by about 90 volunteers. The majority is school personnel; however, there are many different types of people and groups who volunteer as well such as elderly couples, high school students, and City Year volunteers. They have not had any difficulty in getting or retaining volunteers and believe it is because folks in the community are touched by the refugees' stories. Transportation is provided for all refugee families who are interested in coming, through the use of busses from the Boys and Girls Club.
Planning: FUN nights are organized by a committee, which consists of eight people. They meet twice a month to prepare for that month?s FUN night and also have four, key interpreters/cultural brokers to liaise with the various refugee communities. Brendan McCafferty, an assistant principal for one of the schools, handles the volunteer coordination. Other responsibilities such as transportation and child care are divided among the other committee members.
Agencies Involved: The International Institute of NH, The Boys & Girls Club, Manchester Police Department, Manchester Housing Department, Avon Foundation for Breast Cancer, Chamber of Commerce, Head Start, Southern NH Services, Elliot Hospital, Consumer Credit Counseling, The Office of Youth Services, Division for Children, Youth, & Families, New Hampshire Technical College, Easter Seals, Low-Income Taxpayer Clinic, and 21st Century Enrichment Program.
- Cultural Competency Workshops are held for teachers throughout the district to improve their understanding of the cultures of the various families they work with. In 2005-06, seven workshops were conducted by project staff in collaboration with a representative from the Minority Health Coalition. The most popular workshop is the Refugee Parent Panel where refugees from around the globe talk about where they have come from and what their children have experienced in school. They also answer specific questions such as "What sorts of things were surprising to you about the schools when you first arrived?", "What is communication like between a parents and child in your culture?" and "Please describe the discipline practices in your culture when children misbehave?" There is a significant amount of time for the teachers to ask questions, too. Both the teachers and parents have enjoyed the panels greatly. The Parent Panels have become so popular that volunteers from the FUN nights are now requesting permission to come to the Parent Panels.
- B.R.I.N.G. I.T.!!! is a new program that provides soccer and dance programs for refugee youth and English classes for adults. This program was developed by the Manchester School District and Manchester Boys and Girls Club via an ongoing collaborative effort. The partners consciously solicit input and participation from Immigrant and refugee community leaders. There are soccer leagues and dance classes for boys and girls in the evenings. While the youth are in these activities, the parents take English classes, which are taught by teachers from the public schools, who receive a stipend. The parent English classes are brand new and attendance exponentially increases by the week. The soccer program is attracting over 60 students a night and according to Assistant Principal, Brendan McCafferty: "It has quickly turned into an atmosphere like the World Cup. There's great structure and discipline, but the boisterous enjoyment amongst the chanting, cheering, and singing onlookers is palpable. And awesome."
Challenges: The main challenges for the program have been transportation, child care, and the occasional "heated" parent discussion group. In addition, while most people in the community have welcomed the refugees, there has been some friction, which resulted in negative media. Securing funding and additional partners is also an issue as the programs continue to rapidly expand.
Resource Materials Used in Program
Use of a school building, interpretation services, volunteers, bus services, catering and food, and community expertise.
Groups Served by Program
Manchester is home to approximately 3,000 refugees from places as different as Bosnia, Rwanda, Sudan, Somalia, Congo, Sierra Leon, Turkey and the former Soviet Union. All are invited to participate in the program.
Funding is provided largely through a Refugee School Impact Grant and other grant sources.
Program Staffing and Required Staff Training
Collaborative relationships make all aspects of this initiative possible. There are at least eight people on the FUN committee, which includes key administrators. In addition, four interpreters/cultural brokers, dozens of volunteers, and three school social workers are dedicated to this project.
The Manchester Public Schools have a relationship with the University of New Hampshire to evaluate the impact of their programs for refugees. They have begun to collect data; however, the outcomes have yet to be determined.
This Promising Practice began in 2003. The FUN nights are no longer happening, but B.R.I.N.G. I.T.!!! is still operating as of February 2012.