School superintendent defends disputed policies for refugee, immigrant students

Fatima Musa-Khan, a refugee from Pakistan is pictured on Monday afternoon November 19, 2018 in her apartment in Modesto, Calif.
Fatima Musa-Khan, a refugee from Pakistan is pictured on Monday afternoon November 19, 2018 in her apartment in Modesto, Calif.

Sara Noguchi, who took over as superintendent of Modesto City Schools in July, has added her own viewpoints to the sometimes contentious issue of education for immigrant and refugee students in the county’s largest school district.

At a meeting with parents last week, Noguchi said the district needs broader adult school services, not just for newcomers, but for young adults needing a second shot at a diploma and training to enter the workforce. She also explained some changes that had sparked an outcry this fall at the Davis High School Language Institute for newcomer students.

Though an array of adult school opportunities already exists in Stanislaus County, Noguchi said the large school district should improve its own minimal services and she recently paid a visit to Ceres Unified School District to glean ideas.

Along with courses to complete graduation requirements, MCS could offer college preparation classes for young adults, teach job readiness skills and work with community partners on workforce development efforts, Noguchi said.

The challenge of providing education for immigrants and refugee students is unavoidable for local school districts. Stanislaus County took in 4,260 refugees or people with special immigration visas from 2007 to 2017, many from Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, and its agricultural abundance has long attracted immigrant laborers from Mexico and Central American countries.

One resettlement organization estimated that foreign-born residents represent 20 percent of the overall population in Modesto and nearby counties.

Noguchi shared her thoughts at a meeting held for parents of high schoolers in the Language Institute, a program that serves newcomer students from throughout the school district. The program’s enrollment grew to 290 students in August. The school-based program to help international students quickly learn English, earn a diploma and prepare for college was featured in a National Public Radio piece in October.

Speaking to a full house in the high school’s Little Theater, Noguchi explained some recent changes that affect Language Institute students.

In June, the school board approved new policies that determine how long older high schoolers can stay in the program. Students with good attendance and behavior, who are 18 to 20 years old, can use a “fifth year” or extra year in high school to finish graduation requirements.

In a controversial change, however, newcomer students can no longer use the extra year for additional language training or classes to make them eligible for a four-year college.

Noguchi explained that the fifth-year option is offered to students districtwide. If students exercise the option to prepare for college, the school district would have to offer the same to a few thousand students in MCS.

Advocates for the LI program argue that refugee students, who have to overcome language barriers and gaps in their education, need more literacy instruction to succeed in college.

Evet Youkhanna, an LI graduate who went straight to Chico State University, told Noguchi the change in practice is denying opportunity for international students. “You are stopping so many people from having their dream,” Youkhanna said.

According to an LI staff member, the Iraqi refugee didn’t know a word of English when she arrived in Modesto and struggled when directions were translated into Arabic, but a warrior-like spirit drove her to finish high school. Youkhanna used the fifth year to become university-ready and launch her college career.

Noguchi said the district supports the Language Institute with additional staffing and smaller class sizes, and takes pride in the program, but nine of the students over three years completed the “A-G” courses needed for four-year college eligibility. The vast majority of LI graduates choose to attend Modesto Junior College, where they can earn credits to transfer to a university, she said.

In response to a number of comments, Noguchi stressed the fifth-year option is not being eliminated but the district has clarified it’s for graduation requirements.

Some students may be able to work some A-G courses into their fifth year schedule, she said after the meeting.

Sam Pierstorff, an MJC English professor, pointed out that junior college for many students is no longer a two-year stepping stone to a university. It takes substantially more time for students who were not able to take A-G courses in high school, he said.

LI supporters think the program’s top students should have a chance to attend a four-year college after high school. In addition, fifth year literacy classes help ensure success for students bound for MJC, they said.

Noguchi said a committee is looking into unintended consequences of the board policies approved in June, including claims that newcomer students in literacy classes were rescheduled to mainstream classes where they can’t understand the teacher.

At Thursday’s meeting, some parents also were concerned about a shakeup in the LI coordinator’s position. Lindsey Bird, a teacher who has directed the program founded 10 years ago, says her coordinator title was taken away in September after she told administration she would continue as coordinator if the changes this fall were put in writing for staff and parents. Davis Principal Sara Gil informed staff two days later that Bird had resigned the position.

Noguchi and district staff told the parents a new coordinator has been appointed.

Adult School Proposal

Noguchi agrees a stronger adult education program would provide opportunity for a student like Fatima Musa-Kahn and her siblings.

Fatima had no previous education and could not hold a pen when she began school at Davis’ Language Institute in November 2015. More than two years of specialized education taught her some conversational English and, for the first time, opened her mind to math and world history.

But she aged out of Davis this year and found no smooth transition to continue with her studies. Without a diploma, Fatima receives no calls from employers after filing online job applications.

Fatima’s younger brother, Khuda, who also aged out of Davis, is taking a Monday-to-Thursday English class at the Stanislaus County Office of Education’s Comeback Kids adult program and later will take online courses to earn a diploma. Their 23-year-old sister spent the last two years taking English at Modesto Junior College.

Khuda, who has a part time job, is the only one who’s working.

Fatima, who recently turned 21, was not accepted at Comeback Kids this fall due to her limited English. She will apply to take English classes at MJC and circle back later to the county program to earn a diploma and then college, she said.

Sarah Williams of the World Relief resettlement organization in Modesto said there is critical need for more educational opportunities for newcomers in their late teens or early 20s.

“For individuals like Fatima it may take her a few years to bring her English up to a level where she can be accepted to Comeback Kids or until she’s employable,” Williams said in an email. “For this age group to be fully integrated and contributing citizens, this is an issue that needs to be remedied.”

After receiving an influx of students from Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria since 2013, Modesto City Schools could see a shift in its English learner student population. President Donald Trump capped refugee admissions at 45,000 nationwide in the federal budget year that ended Sept. 30 and half that number (22,491) were accepted, down from almost 85,000 in 2016. Trump’s ceiling is 30,000 this year.

Noguchi said in addition to the refugee and immigrant population, there’s a greater demand for education services among adults looking to graduate or earn a general education degree and young adults who need workforce training, including students attending alternative education programs.

An early sketch for the program has a Skills University with a high school diploma track for English learners and career skills learning. Adult students could earn skill certifications in nursing assistance, welding and office technology. Initial staffing for the program would include an English language teacher and education instructor, paraprofessional, administrative assistant and community liaison.

Courses and child care would be provided at Pearson Education Center on Locust Street.

The program features will be modified and expanded as the school district receives feedback on the proposal. “There remains a lot of work to do. It’s clearly in the beginning planning phase,” Noguchi said.