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Influx Of Refugee Students Stretches Wichita Public Schools Thin

Sean Sandefur

The Wichita Public School District has recently asked the state for additional funding to help with an influx of young refugees. These students often require years of tutoring before they’re ready to join the rest of the student body, but the district’s budget is tight. KMUW’s Sean Sandefur visited a Wichita elementary school to see how students, teachers and administrators are doing.

Students are taking cues on a recent afternoon from Carol Evans, a volunteer who reads to the “newcomers’ class” at Jefferson Elementary in Wichita. These 22 children have come to the U.S. from nearly a dozen different countries. Many are immigrants from Mexico, Central America and Asia. But others are refugees from countries in northern Africa and the Middle East.

Credit Sean Sandefur
Objects in the classroom are identified so students can remember them in English

The lesson plan today is focused on colors and animals. It’s an exercise in how to correctly identify and pronounce words in English. The students range from 2nd-graders to 5th-graders, and their teacher, Sarah Hensley, says that’s one of the hardest parts of her job: having a classroom full of children of with varying levels education.

“Depending on if they’ve had formal education, it could take up to 7 or 10 years before they’re actually able to be at level with their peers," she says.

Hensley says those cases are pretty rare and that many students only require about two years of tutoring. The emphasis today is language, but it goes much further than that.

“We still teach all of the school subjects, it’s just we also include English into everything we’re doing," Hensley says. "So they’re learning reading, writing, listening and speaking all day.”

Credit Sean Sandefur
Co-teacher Susie Krehbiel helps a student in the "Newcomers Class" at Jefferson Elementary

A language barrier also exists between teachers and parents, who Hensley says are eager to be involved with homework. For support both in the classroom and in meetings with parents, she has the help of teaching assistants--one a native Spanish speaker and one who speaks Vietnamese. The district also utilizes Arabic translators when needed, and the school has access to a service called Propio, which connects teachers to hundreds of translators via telephone. But language isn’t the only barrier.

Credit Sean Sandefur

"Some students have never sat [through a full day of school]—very inconsistent education," Hensley says. "And some of the paths or backgrounds and experiences they’ve had can be very difficult. So we’re teaching behavior and social skills. Our classroom really is a little bit of everything."

Some of these students are coming from war-torn countries, and most are escaping extreme poverty. It’s not enough for Hensley and her staff to provide spelling handouts, go over multiplication tables and read aloud from illustrated books. The classroom becomes a refuge.

"We are kind of a safety zone for these kids coming in, and a lot them don’t have friends or family here, so we become that," Hensley says. "And the rest of the students in the classroom become that, as well. Anything that they need, they know that they can come to us, and they trust us for that."

Credit Sean Sandefur

These children and their families are here as refugees through a federal program and two local initiatives: The International Rescue Committee, which has operations in 22 U.S. cities, and the Episcopal Wichita Area Refugee Ministry. Currently, there are more than 200 refugee children in Wichita Public Schools, and Hensley says more are expected. If that happens, administrators say they need more money.

"Even back with the old formula, where we got some additional funding for those students, it was even a struggle with that,” says Wichita Public Schools CFO James Freeman.

The Kansas Legislature threw out the old school funding formula earlier this year, replacing it with block grant funding. The change was made during tense and drawn-out budget talks at the state capital. Proponents of the new model, including Gov. Sam Brownback, say the old formula created categories and told school districts where they could spend their money. Block grants are said to free up funding so schools can spend money where it’s needed. Freeman says that might be true, but that wasn’t the problem. He says the district has more students, but not more funding.

"It’s basically flat funding for us," he says. "We really aren’t getting enough new revenue next year that we can use in our operations to really count. We are getting some additional state aid, but most of it is in the KPERS fund, which is our retirement fund."

The problem, Freeman says, is that with additional programs pulling at the budget, including this specialized education for a growing immigrant and refugee population, there’s no new funding to help pay for it.

Credit Sean Sandefur
Wichita Public Schools CFO James Freeman

"We have fifty-some thousand dollars of new funding in operations, but we have $14 million of increased costs," Freeman says. "So the budget process has been difficult, from the standpoint of trying to decide how we can reallocate funds within the budget, make some cuts and make the budget balanced."

To do that, Wichita Public Schools has cut down on purchasing new supplies and materials for schools, reduced its adult education program, left numerous open positions vacant and dipped into its reserve fund. The state’s new education funding model did include over $12 million in extraordinary needs funding, and Wichita Public Schools is asking for nearly a million of that to help with educating refugees.

"(The funding) would be used to hire teachers, probably another counselor, some paraeducators to actually put into the classrooms," Freeman says.

Credit Sean Sandefur

Freeman says the district has 130 refugee students that have enrolled after the approval of the current budget, and it's not clear how to fund their education. Last week, about $6 million of additional funding was awarded to 34 districts to help with increased enrollment. None of that was distributed to Wichita schools.

Some legislators feel the federal government should be providing money for refugees, as they're the ones sending them to Wichita. Freeman says federal funds are provided for housing and other needs, but not for education. He is hopeful that come October, when the State Finance Council meets again, they’ll receive the money they’ve requested. 

If they don't, "we’re still going to have to provide services for those kids," Freeman says. "It may mean larger class sizes, and for that type of class, that would be a bit of a challenge. Or, we have to some way to find the money in the budget to be able to do it, or use some of our reserves to get through a year."

Over each of the last two years, the "Newcomers Class"  at Jefferson Elementary has grown by a few students. The school accepts English Language Learners from 13 other elementary schools in the district. Despite razor-thin budgets, an increase in refugees and immigrants to Wichita isn’t slowing down.


Follow Sean Sandefur on Twitter @SeanSandefur.

To contact KMUW News or to send in a news tip, reach us at news@kmuw.org.