FARGO — As the last American troops returned from the nation’s longest war in Afghanistan, one of the most critical questions that President Joe Biden’s administration was facing after evacuating more than 120,000 refugees last August was where to put them.
With at least 49 of those Afghan refugees destined to find homes in the Fargo area within the next 11 months, Fargo Public Schools is ready to enroll the students into the English Learner, or EL, program.
National volunteer agency Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, or LIRS, made agreements with the State Department to bring a total of about 300 refugees from various countries to North Dakota before September 2022, said Daniel Hannaher, LIRS field office director. LIRS was a partner of Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota before the 102-year-old agency closed in January due to a lack of funds.
The Afghan refugees will be relocated primarily to the Fargo area through the Afghan Placement Assistance program, which is funded separately, Hannaher said.
Although LIRS plans to bring about 300 refugees into the Fargo area in 2022, Fargo Public Schools is preparing for up to 500 new refugees, some of whom will be K-12 students, said David Burkman, director of the Fargo Public Schools English Learner program.
Hannaher said the higher estimate of 500 refugees may incorporate normal immigrant traffic, asylees and people in the refugee program from previous years.
Fargo’s public schools are prepared to handle the new refugee students, Burkman said.
“There is an EL teacher serving students in every building across the district,” he said.
This school year, the district has 964 English Learner students who come from 60 countries and collectively speak 87 different languages. EL students comprise 7.6% of the district’s enrollment.
In 2020 and 2021, the state should see up to 100 refugees, Burkman said. In previous years, the numbers ranged from 307 in 2013 and 451 in 2014 in Fargo to 400 in 2019 for all of North Dakota, he said.
Area elementary schools currently have 460 EL students, which means the student-to-teacher ratio is about 30 to 40 students per one EL teacher, Burkman said.
Middle schools in the district have a total of about 210 EL students, and the high schools have about the same number, he said.
Fargo Public Schools follows recently tightened state standards on how to enroll students into EL programs.
The new standards, released in a 270-page manual, mandate that a student’s proficiency level must be 3.5 out of 5.0 or lower to qualify for the EL program.
“In previous years, if a student scored a 4.9 they would qualify for EL services — barely, but they would qualify,” Burkman said. “This means that students with slightly weaker English skills would no longer qualify for EL.”
Such struggling students won’t be forgotten, he said.
“Anecdotally, I know we’ve had at least two or three students who have been new to the district that we have screened that, under new criteria, did not qualify for EL services,” Burkman said. Students not doing well will remain on the “EL team’s watchlist,” and will receive the help they need.
The district won’t need to immediately hire more teachers or do anything more than it is already doing to prepare for next year’s refugee students.
“We’re in a good spot to be able to handle it, and if we have a bubble in a particular school, I will put in a request for additional staffing, even in mid-year,” Burkman said. “We work closely with LIRS workers when the resettlement happens, meaning they have case managers that are helping families get settled into the community, and if there are any unique situations they will connect with the school.”
Public school districts are required to offer an equitable education to all attending students, said district spokeswoman AnnMarie Campbell.
Fargo Public Schools “will continue to offer the same services to new students who arrive within our attendance boundaries,” Campbell said, adding that the district has social workers and EL teachers trained to connect with refugee students and families.
There are more than 50 languages spoken in Afghanistan, but primarily Dari, Farsi and Pashto are spoken.
“In the state of North Dakota, education must be delivered in the English language,” Campbell said. “We do not have a bilingual education program in K-12 nor in our adult education program. However, we are required to provide interpreting services when necessary or requested. We use both in-town/in-person services or phone-in services for interpretation.”
West Fargo Public Schools spokeswoman Heather Leas said the district is also planning for the arrival of refugees to the area.
"At this time, we don’t know how many of the families will be located in our district, but we do have programming in place to support however many would come our way," Leas said.
West Fargo Public Schools currently has 850 students receiving EL support from 40 EL teachers.
Moorhead Area Public Schools spokeswoman Brenda Richman said that although the district isn't expecting any of the refugee students to attend schools across the Red River, they are ready and would welcome any new refugee students.
Students in EL programs in Moorhead comprise 7.47% of total enrollment. The people who comprise the district's Adult Basic Education program come from 41 countries and speak 27 different languages.
Many of the refugees expected over the next year have suffered under the 20 years of civil war and U.S. military engagement in Afghanistan.
“So far, they are keeping private on many things, universally not wanting publicity out of fear for family and friends who remain under threat,” Hannaher said.
After LSS closed, LIRS immediately maneuvered to fill in the gaps to provide direct services to refugees. LIRS now runs the reception and placement program, which covers the first 90 days of a refugee’s arrival and is funded by the State Department.
The volunteer organization also helps with refugee support services, funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Such services can last up to five years and focus on employment, job readiness, English Learner services and integration, Hannaher said.