Fitting in and catching up: Life as a refugee teen in Utah

December 3, 2011
Author: Rosemary Winters, Salt Lake Tribune

refugee photo

(photo courtesy of The Salt Lake Tribune)

Meet KaPaw Htoo • For typical American teenagers, high school holds both excitement and liberal doses of adolescent angst. Now imagine being dropped into that social pressure cooker with little schooling, no English, and no knowledge of the local culture. The Salt Lake Tribune is documenting the journey of Burmese teen KaPaw Htoo, 16, as he copes with his first year of high school in Utah. In this first in an ongoing series, he contends with the first day of school —twice.

Murray » KaPaw Htoo sits in the back of math class at Cottonwood High. His pencil is poised, but he writes nothing. He stares intently at his teacher, but he doesn’t register a word.

The 16-year-old speaks almost no English. Just two months earlier, he lived in a refugee camp in Thailand where he was born to parents fleeing violence in nearby Burma. Now he’s enrolled at an urban high school with 1,600 teens where no one knows his history, and the language barrier is as vast as the distance between Utah and Asia.

Teacher Yuri Perez asks students to help him simplify an equation on the white board: 3b+4c-c-2d.

But in his home country, KaPaw Htoo never made it through third grade. He is barely literate in his native language, Karen. He knows single-digit addition, but cannot complete a multiplication table or carry a one to add double-digit numbers.

On Aug. 30, he’s a week late for the first day of school — but years behind his classmates in the 11th grade.

KaPaw Htoo (pronounced CAW-paw TOO) is one of a number of young refugees who enroll in Utah schools every year, with varying degrees of education and English skills. In the past decade, 8,100 refugees — legal immigrants fleeing persecution or war — have arrived in Utah from 42 nations, including a thousand from Burma, according to the Utah Refugee Services Office. Gerald Brown, office director, estimates that about 30 percent of the newcomers are children younger than 18 and that 99 percent of all refugees live in the Salt Lake Valley.

Little data is kept about how well these displaced students fare in our public schools. How do they perform on math, science and English tests? How many reach graduation? The answers are hidden somewhere in results for ethnic minorities and children with limited English skills, groups that are followed under No Child Left Behind. Schools are not required to track refugees as a separate category.

Yet acquiring education and English skills are key hurdles to refugees’ success. The unemployment rate of refugees in December 2008, 15 percent, was nearly double that of the rate nationally, 7.2 percent, according to the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement’s 2011 report to Congress.

School placement » In Utah, schools generally place students based on their age, no matter how poor their language skills or what they know academically. They are entitled to a free public education until the year they turn 18. That means KaPaw Htoo has far fewer years — just two — in Utah’s public schools than his younger sister and three brothers, who are ages 12, 9, 8 and 3.

With two years to learn English and complete four years worth of high school credits, it’s doubtful he will graduate with his class. He may need to complete a high school diploma or pass the General Educational Development (GED) test in a district-sponsored adult education program.

Although refugees have been arriving for more than a decade, schools are still developing strategies for how to best serve refugee students during the time they have.

In Utah, Granite and Salt Lake City School Districts — who have the highest concentrations of refugees — have been grappling with the challenge the longest. Granite has 759 refugees in grades K-12 and Salt Lake City has 804. In contrast, Canyons district has 28. Other districts in the Salt Lake Valley do not have a count.

Salt Lake City boosted its monitoring of refugees’ last year, says assistant superintendent Kathleen Christy. With a senior class of 78 refugees, 57 graduated on time. Among all refugees who took the state’s standard exams in 2010, 45 percent were proficient in language arts, 34 percent were proficient in math and 17 percent were proficient in science. The test is not given to students who are in their first year of learning English.


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