Welcoming Afghan Families: Lessons Learned from Austin ISD

Map of Afghanistan

Learn how one school district is currently partnering with the Afghan community and preparing to welcome the additional Afghan families who will be arriving in their schools in coming months.

The Austin, TX Independent School District (Austin ISD) is home to more than 21,000 English language learners. While the majority of students are Spanish speakers, students throughout the district speak 116 languages. Austin ISD also serves about 700 refugee students.

Currently, over 300 Afghan students are enrolled in Austin ISD and the district is preparing to welcome nearly 100-200 Afghan families in the coming months following the recent developments in Afghanistan. We spoke to a team from Austin ISD's Multilingual Education Department to learn more about their preparations and lessons learned so far. This team included the following members:

  • David Kauffman, Executive Director for Multilingual Education
  • Salimah Shamsuddin, Refugee Family Support Coordinator
  • A Refugee Family Liaison (This team member is from Afghanistan and asked not to be named.)

You can see additional coverage of Austin's initiatives (both in the school district and locally) to welcome Afghan refugees in the recommended resources below.

Note: ELLs in Texas are now referred to as "emergent bilinguals" based on a recent change in state policy.

Multilingual Education in Austin

Austin ISD has taken some key steps to ensure that educators throughout the district are prepared to serve their diverse student body. In addition to robust bilingual programming, all elementary school teachers are ESL certified, and at the secondary level, all English teachers must be ESL certified. That requirement is also starting to roll out for content areas.

Dr. Kauffman notes, "We really try to build a structure where all of our classes support language learning and our emergent bilinguals. We also have a real emphasis on cultural proficiency and inclusiveness. It's an ongoing priority that we make sure that our teachers and our staff and our schools are culturally proficient and that we're creating inclusive environments where everyone feels welcome and everyone is able to see themselves in the classroom. Those are core things that we want to make sure are always in place."

It's also worth noting that the district has extensive experience resettling students who have been displaced from both domestic and international situations, such as evacuees from Hurricane Katrina and Burmese students from Myanmar.

Refugee Family Support Services Office

The Refugee Family Support Office services include assistance with:

  • Registration and enrollment support
  • Cultural orientation for student and parents
  • Parent/teacher conferences and meetings
  • Crisis intervention
  • Resource mapping and referrals to mental health providers
  • Day-to-day interpretation services — such as assisting families with understanding school forms — for 90 campuses
  • Facilitating campus events targeting refugee families (e.g., Coffee with the Principal, Back to School Night, Know Your Rights events, etc.)
  • Home visits
  • Emergency language support for families and campuses
  • Interpretation for special education meetings

For example, in the case of families arriving from Afghanistan, the Refugee Family Liaison will help families with registration and a cultural orientation. That orientation might include topics such as how lunch works, how schedules work for secondary students, school transportation, and public transportation. The team will also provide crisis supports that are needed.

Ms. Shamsuddin notes, "We work very closely with our licensed mental health professionals and our school counselors to make sure that the students are referred to culturally competent mental health providers that know how to work with refugee families. We emphasize a focus on wellness rather than mental health, which is a more inviting entry into the topic."

In addition, the Refugee Family Liaison makes a point to inform families of their right to an interpreter and the language access resources available in the district, noting, "I always inform parents, 'Don't think because you don't speak the language you can't communicate with your students' teachers. Ask them to provide you with an interpreter.' Then I give them that information."

Ms. Shamsuddin notes that the Refugee Family Liaison's relationship with the families is a key source of trust and communication. "This work is essential to building relationships among families and schools. The liaison's knowledge, skills, and competencies make them an effective advocate for our families and provide the families with the tools and resources they need to be successful."

In addition, community partners are critical and the team has worked extensively to develop those partnerships. According to Ms. Shamsuddin, "Having a strong network of community partners including social services, education, refugee providers, community based organization and advocacy groups allows for interagency collaboration, resource sharing and effective coordinated services."

Professional Development

Ms. Shamsuddin and the Refugee Family Liaison have also prepared a staff training to help educators get more familiar with important facts about Afghanistan and cultural considerations. Some of the points they share include the following:

  • Afghan vs. Afghani: Afghani is the currency in Afghanistan. "Afghan" is the appropriate adjective to use when discussing students or families from Afghanistan.
  • Geography: Afghanistan is located in South Asia. Afghan students are not Arab or from the Middle East.
  • Language: The two primary languages spoken in Afghanistan are Dari and Pashto; in addition, many people speak regional languages that are less common.
  • Eye contact: In Afghan culture, individuals may look away rather than making eye contact; this is not a sign of disrespect but may be interpreted as such by Western educators.

Supporting Afghan Students and Families During This Time

Ms. Shamsuddin and the Refugee Family Liaison also have put a lot of thought in how to help their colleagues effectively partner with families during this time. Some recommendations they share include the following, which are especially helpful to remember as events in Afghanistan continue to develop and the anniversary of 9/11 approaches:

  • Learn how to pronounce students' names correctly.
  • Build relationships with students and families so that you can build trust. This will take time but is essential in order to partner effectively with families.
  • Don't lose sight of Afghan cultural strengths, their pride in their culture, their resilience, the diversity they bring into the school, and the courageous work these Afghans did in their country in spite of numerous dangers.
  • Consider that students and families are hurting. They are going through a traumatic, tumultous period and still have family and friends back home. They're deeply concerned about many different things, and students may have a hard time focusing.
  • Afghan staff are also hurting. It's important for leaders, managers, and colleagues to be empathetic and flexible. It's also critical to recognize that Afghan colleagues face a double challenge of navigating a challenging time personally while being immersed in the trauma that refugee families who are arriving have faced.
  • Students may have experienced trauma; avoid referencing topics that might remind them of that trauma, such as ethnic tension, the Taliban, and women's rights in Afghanistan. If students want to discuss their experiences, listen, but don't ask personal questions. Give them a private space to share more if they wish to and consider whether additional support is needed.
  • Don't put Afghan students on the spot to speak about their experiences or opinions, and give students the chance to leave the class during discussions they find upsetting. This is a deeply painful time for the Afghan community.

On this point, Dr. Kauffman adds, "Our families have no obligation to speak on behalf of an entire population. We can't expect them to inform us about things that as Americans we should probably already know about. The most important thing is ensuring they feel welcome and have a safe space to share their story if and when they choose to."

When asked for any closing thoughts, the Refugee Family Liaison notes that this is a time when compassion is the priority, offering the following advice: "Please learn more about what has happened in Afghanistan. This will help educators be more kind and compassionate towards their students who are coming."

For additional recommendations and cultural considerations, see the following:

Resouces from Austin

How schools can support Afghan students

How to partner with refugee students and families

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