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Teachers and students together create a welcoming environment for immigrant students

Students look at books and talk

While Betsy Devos threatens to close the Federal English Language Learners (ELL) office, students across Oregon rely on ELL programs to ease their transition into our public schools. Such is the case with immigrant students enrolled in Centennial School District. Ms. Sabin Rouffy is an 8th grade English teacher at Centennial Middle School who instructs immigrant students in her classroom. She is a great example of someone working to provide better support to immigrant students.

Ms. Sabin Rouffy estimates that 12 to 15 percent of her students are part of the ELL program. Many more have graduated from ELL services, but are still monitored by the school. Among her students are also those who speak English fluently, but emigrated from a different country between the ages of three and seven. A significant portion of her students are refugees who fled their homes when their communities or country fell into turmoil.

Students in Ms. Sabin Rouffy’s classes have a wide variety of seen and unseen challenges. Many struggle with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder after having left their home country. This is further complicated by the fact that they suddenly find themselves receiving a more formal education than was provided in their previous schools, all in a somewhat unfamiliar language. In addition, she teaches a number of undocumented students who are afraid to apply for free and reduced lunch or participate in afterschool activities, despite need. Ms. Sabin Rouffy notes that her students are “concerned ICE [U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement] will show up at their school,” a “fear [that] negatively impacts their learning.” Instead of worrying about homework, friendships, and planning for high school, these middle school students are stressing about the emergency plans they’ve developed with their families in case ICE does show up.

Ms. Sabin Rouffy’s immigrant students participate in the ELL program to assist in their transition to an English speaking public school. The ELL program has five levels, and students are able to move up levels each year after taking the English Language Proficiency Assessment. Once students graduate from all five levels, they continue to be monitored by the school for three years without receiving additional instruction. But in Ms. Sabin Rouffy’s opinion, the test is far from an accurate or complete measure of students’ English acquisition, and there are limited resources to continue supporting these students once they transition out of ELL services. Students often advance levels before they have truly mastered the material, and as a result, graduate from the program far behind their peers in terms of academic English ability. While the program is not perfect, it is the only chance many of her students have to learn English.

To provide support for her immigrant students outside of the ELL program, Ms. Sabin Rouffy relies on her other students. She sees the clear benefits of building a school and classroom community, and encourages all her students to connect and engage with one another. She spends a portion of her English curriculum teaching her students how to understand one another, be aware of how diverse cultures communicate differently, and recognize the importance of uplifting their peers. She specifically encourages students to sit with those who are sitting alone at lunch or to engage new students by asking them to join in recess games. Last school year, Ms. Sabin Rouffy announced to each of her classes that she would be serving peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in her classroom during lunch, and by the end of the year, she was eating with over 40 students each day. Students find that these simple actions play a meaningful role in making Centennial School District more welcoming.

West of Gresham, the area where Ms. Sabin Rouffy teaches, has the largest percentage of low-income housing and is where most resettled refugees are given apartments. Ms. Sabin Rouffy knows that many Oregonians never encounter the struggles of her students and their families. As these communities are already underrepresented since they often cannot vote, it is essential to bring attention to their concerns and provide better support. As Oregonians, we could work a little harder to be more like Ms. Sabin Rouffy and her students, and reach out to uplift those around us. Simple gestures can often mean the most, and a conversation can go a long way.

Dana Smiley is a junior at Lincoln High School and a Student Voice Blogger at Oregon Student Voice, a student-led organization that empowers all students to be authentic partners in making decisions that affect their K-12 education.

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