A RESEARCH BASED, SCIENTIFIC APPROACH FOR THE EDUCATIONAL EMPOWERMENT OF PRE-LITERATE REFUGEES
The United Nations High Commission for Refugees estimates that in 2019 there were 26 million refugees in the world in need of a welcoming country where they could permanently settle and call home (1). The overwhelming majority of those refugees have fled from ten countries, and five of these countries are notable for their low literacy rates (2). Indeed, four of these countries, Afghanistan, South Sudan, the Central African Republic and Somalia, all have literacy rates of less than 40%, which is less than half the world-wide average of 86.1% (3).
Bleak as these numbers in these four countries seem, the situation for the Rohingya people is much worse. Members of this ethnic minority group from the nation of Myanmar are not recognized as citizens of the country where they were born and where their families have lived for hundreds of years. Government oppression has forced more than one million Rohingya people to flee their homes since 2012, often at gunpoint or from burning villages. Currently, over 850,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh where they endure squalid conditions in the largest cluster of refugee camps in the world (4). Only 17% of the men and 6% of the women are able to read basic texts in their primary language (5). Though shocking, this situation is not surprising given that systematic governmental and military efforts have deprived the Rohingya of basic human rights for decades -- including actively preventing Rohingya people from educating their children (6).
All of these illiterate refugees face enormous challenges when it comes to thriving in their new homelands. As a result, they are often rejected by countries that receive refugees (7). Compared to some other countries, the U.S. has, in the past, been exceptionally willing to accept the challenge of welcoming refugees who have been systematically abused. If we plan to re-engage with this effort, we should be clear-eyed about the difficulties and the level of support needed to help these families thrive.
Refugees who arrive in the U.S. with extreme deficits in schooling are particularly vulnerable to school failure (8). A review of the relevant literature emphasizes the difficulty that these students have when it comes to learning English and the extent to which most school systems are unprepared to meet the needs of these students. These realities are reflected in the 2017 Migration Policy Institute (MPI) report, which concludes with a basic challenge – to “expand education and language-learning opportunities. Expanding these opportunities would require improving refugees’ access to mainstream education….” (9)
The research regarding the current challenges facing mainstreaming refugee children provides an overwhelming picture, as follows: “Adjusting to school [is] one of the most difficult experiences for young refugees” and “[s]tudents with interrupted schooling have missed the staged development which occurs in formal schooling, have little age-appropriate experience in literacy, numeracy, use of print and multi-modal texts, limited content knowledge of the world and little experience with problem-based learning.” (10)
This research confirms the pattern we have seen anecdotally in our experience working with refugees in Chicago. Most of the refugee families we know have been able to surmount enormous financial and logistical hurdles to become independent and contributing members of their new communities. Nevertheless, a large percentage of their children are not succeeding in school due to their difficulties in learning basic math, reading, and even spoken English. This trend is especially heartbreaking given the extraordinary high value placed on education by parents who have never attended a day of school because of systemic governmental oppression in their homeland. The situation results in a profound feeling of powerlessness and hopelessness in these parents.
Unfortunately, few organizations or institutions are prepared to address this problem. The standard plan is to assume that public schools will accommodate these children’s needs, but the schools’ solution is to integrate these “SIFE” students (Students with Interrupted Formal Education) with “ELL” students (English language learners). As the research cited above makes clear, students who have not had access to schooling face much greater challenges than ELL students, and these existing programs fail to provide the necessary support (11).
Even worse, many refugee advocacy groups do not articulate the seriousness of this crisis in an effort to avoid exacerbating anti-refugee sentiment. But this refusal to face facts does not address the underlying issue that refugee families need and deserve significant educational support. The politics will only become more hostile until and unless we offer a practical path to literacy and numeracy for all newcomers -- even those who will be the first in their family to learn to read.
Our supporters' generous donations of time and money have shown that children of unschooled refugees can succeed when given intensive support. When we first opened our doors, in January of 2019, all but two of our students were scoring below the 50th percentile in math -- nearly a third scored below the 20th percentile. This past spring, 60% of our students who were retested scored above the 50th percentile math. These scores will translate into amazingly better life trajectories. We already see this in the self-confidence that our students now have.
As but one example, one of our young scholars, whose father grew up in a refugee camp, joined FORA in the spring of 2019, when he was a “C” student, struggling in all his classes. After teaching him the basics, we discovered that he was a math whiz! He doubled and tripled down on learning math, often spending four or five hours a day at FORA. This fall he began his freshman year at a rigorous charter high school, where he tested into Algebra I as a 9th grader - an advanced track that will see him completing calculus in the 12th grade. The academic skills he has gained are allowing him to pursue a path that will lead to a 4-year college degree and possibly even further. We are honored to be part of his journey and we will be there to support him along the way.
We’ve also seen fantastic gains in reading. Two-thirds of our students doubled the expected rate of gain in reading fluency during the first year they participated in our program. Three of those students saw triple the expected rate of gain. Once again, this is phenomenal progress that changes the experience of school for these students, and means the world to their parents.
We don’t have new data from the school-administered standardized NWEA MAP tests because CPS has not met in person since last March. We do have results from the previous two years, however, and the results are fantastic. In order to really know how effective we are, we need to consider the rate of students’ growth in the year BEFORE they joined FORA with the rate of gain in the past year. That comparison allows us to account for the fact that refugee children don’t necessarily fit with national norms. The median rate of gain before FORA was in the 40th percentile nationally. In the past year, the median gain for reading is in the 76th percentile and in math the rate of gain is in the 99th percentile. Our kids are killing it in math!
How do we support this level of improvement? There is very little research on effective programs for SIFE students like ours. One consistent recommendation is the intensity of academic intervention (12). To that end, we strive to create an environment where the love of learning is a given for students and tutors alike. We interview each tutor and staff member so that we can determine their dedication to education and impress upon them the importance of modeling a positive attitude towards reading and math. Our students spend an hour-and-a-half to two hours each day with us -- five days a week, through school vacations and all summer long. They get to know their tutors and our program very well, and they know how important their own learning is to all of us. Our center is a happy place where students work hard. Rather than merely helping with homework, we provide our students with a rigorous math and reading curriculum that is individualized for each child’s level of learning. Each student enters FORA with either a first- or third-grade common core math assessment, so that they can shore up their foundation and move forward at their own pace. Similarly, reading is targeted to each student’s level. Reading instruction is a mix of exercises covering phonics, word structure, grammar, and vocabulary, along with significant time spent reading books out loud with an English-speaking tutor, which is always one-on-one.
Both math and reading curriculum are presented from online learning platforms that are based on the science of learning and tested for effectiveness, including Lexia for reading, Dreambox for beginning math, and ALEKS for more advanced math. When we are physically meeting together we read books from our own library, which contains over 1,000 new, beautiful high-interest books across a spectrum of reading levels. Especially valuable are our culturally relevant books that present characters that relate to our students. Our students often articulate how much they value and enjoy reading books about characters that look like them with relatable experiences.
Our aim for face-to-face learning is at least one tutor for every two students, and we often surpassed that goal. Online tutoring is almost always one-on-one. The sheer amount of time and the close interactions between tutors and students promotes authentic relationships between volunteers and refugee children. These relationships are the heart of learning at FORA.
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. “Figures at a Glance.” UNHCR. United Nations Refugee Agency. Accessed July 7, 2020. (accessed July 7, 2020)
Fillippo Grandi, “Forcibly Displaced People by Country of Origin, 2000-2019,” Global Trends: Forced Displacement in 2019, UN Refugee Agency, 2020, (accessed July 7, 2020).
“Literacy Rate by Country,” World Population Review, World Population Review, 2020, (accessed July 7, 2020).
“Measures are Scaled Up for Rohingyas, Locals in Cox’s Bazar” WHO,” United News of Bangladesh, United News of Bangladesh and Digital Content Services, June 30, 2020, (accessed on July 7, 2020)
Eric DeLuca, “Rohingya Crisis Response,” Translators without Borders, TBW Communications, February 28, 2019, (accessed on July 7, 2020).
Lukas Amsden, “Still in Crisis: Ethnic Cleansing of Rohingya,” PSU Vanguard, Portland State University, September 23, 2028, (accessed July 7, 2020).
Randy Capps et al., “The Integration Outcomes of U.S. Refugees: Successes and Challenges,” Migration Policy Institute, National Center on Immigrant Integration Policy, June 14, 2017, (accessed on July 7, 2020), 2.
Virginia P. Collier, “Acquiring a Second Language for School,” Directions in Language Education 1, 4 (1995), (accessed on July 8, 2020)
Randy Capps et al. 2017.
Maya Cranitch, “Developing Language and Literacy Skills to Support Refugee Students in the transition from Primary to Secondary School,” Australian Journal of Language and Literacy 33, 3. (2010); 257.
“Refugee/Newcomer Student Services,” Chicago Public Schools’ Services and Supports, September 22, 2020).
Kristina Robertson and Susan Lafond, “How to Support ELL Students with Interrupted Formal Education (SIFEs),” Colorín Colorado, WETA, February 5, (2020), (accessed September 22, 2020).