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Somali students face barriers without in-person instruction

By John McCracken

GREEN BAY – First, schools are closed and shift to virtual learning as a contagious virus spreads. Next, jobs are lost or pay is reduced. Finally, child care is closed and the future is suddenly cloudy.

This story is familiar for parents across the Green Bay Area Public School District, but for refugee parents, there is a language barrier when trying to get information from teachers or administrators.

“I don’t know if they’re learning and I’m sure most parents feel the same,” said Halima Adan, a Somalia refugee parent with children who attend GBAPS.

Adan said that this was during a recent focus group administered through Community Services Agency Inc. (COMSA), a Green Bay-based refugee and immigrant resource center.

Somali students of all grades face language barriers when it comes to relaying information to parents.

“COVID came and destroyed everything and for (students) to catch up on is next to impossible,” said Said Hassan, president and co-founder of COMSA.

There are about 400 Somalia students in grades 3K-12 in the district.

Hassan said 90 percent of the parents COMSA has talked with through focus groups didn’t go to school themselves.

In a recent focus group with parents and COMSA staff, parents expressed frustration with language and technology barriers, children falling behind in classes, attention and attendance issues.

Parents have relied on COMSA’s after school sessions to connect students with tutors and parents with translators.

“The district is fortunate to have a Somali parent engagement coordinator, four Somali professionals that work in the schools and ESL teachers to troubleshoot communication problems with students,” said Julie Seefeldt, GBAPS’s director of English learner programs.

Seefeldt said there has been an increase in teachers and parents using a virtual third-party translation service across the district.

At a recent school board meeting, GBAPS authorized face-to-face meetings for small groups to meet with students who were struggling.

“There is a problem with motivation and engagement with all students,” said Seefeldt.

In late January, 44 Somali middle and high school students will be among those allowed to meet in small groups to try and get back on track with teachers and ESL staff.

“Students who are learning English feel more comfortable to participate and ask questions with small group instruction,” Seefeldt said.

In 2019 there were 480 refugees resettled in the dairy state, a sharp drop compared to the 2016 high of 1,877 according to the U.S. State Department Refugee Processing Center.

Hassan estimates there are between 3,500 and 4,000 individuals with a refugee status living in Green Bay, and Somali refugees make up the majority.

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