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Warwick: Other towns need to take ‘fair share’ of refugee burden

Sept. 12, 2013
By G. Michael Dobbs


SPRINGFIELD – With 12 percent of the state’s refugee population in Springfield, the city’s schools have a “very difficult challenge” in educating the almost 700 refugee children, according the School Superintendent Daniel Warwick.

Warwick set up an example of what the schools must take on: a 14-year-old who has never been in any school and who has lived his or her entire life in refugee camps. There are children, he noted, who until coming to Springfield have never seen running water.

Warwick said it’s not just the education of a child, but helping that child adjust to life in a new world.

Serving a student population of almost 90 percent in poverty already, Warwick said that adjoining communities need to consider taking on “their fair share of the burden.”

“The point is we just don’t have the resources [as a city],” he told Reminder Publications.

Mayor Domenic Sarno sent a letter to federal refugee resettlement officials last month asking them to stop bringing refuges to Springfield. Sarno was criticized for his statements by refugee resettlement programs and local clergy.

Warwick stressed that he, whose mother was an immigrant, and Sarno, who is a first generation American, are extremely sympathetic to the plight of immigrants and refugees, but the issue has come down to funding.

The superintendent explained the refugee students require “intense tutelage,” English as a Second Language classes and translators. He added there are 55 languages spoken by the city’s students.

After each student is evaluated, a program is designed for that child, Warwick explained. The students are frequently in extended day programs and attend summer school to help catch up.

The students are often taught in a Sheltered English Immersion Program. The result is a cost per student that is twice the cost for an average pupil.

The district already has challenges – it is the second largest in the state, has a high rate of English as a Second Language students – 20 percent – and a rate of 20 percent special needs students.

State education officials expect all students to pass the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) regardless of their circumstances, Warwick added.

Although the cost of refugee students is greater, the city is not receiving additional funding from the state to pay for the programs. Warwick explained the state’s Chapter 70 funding pays for the year past, and “it doesn’t cover the cost of the refugee’s education.”

Springfield just meets the minimum set by the state for per student spending, Warwick said, and 85 percent of the district’s funding comes from the state. The remaining 15 percent comes from the city through property taxes, which he noted, are at their limit.

Regardless of the financial challenges, Warwick said, “We will do everything we can to give them everything they deserve.”

He said there are some issues with discipline with some of the students.

“You can’t imagine the trauma these kids have experienced in these camps,” Warwick said.

School officials also assist in helping the children, their parents and their families achieve access to social services. Many of the refugee programs, Warwick noted, that bring the refugees here only offer a three-month period of assistance.

He added that some schools have “adopted” the refugee families to give them greater support as they adapt to life in the United States.

On Aug. 28, Sarno received a reply for his letter requesting a moratorium on additional refugee placements in the city from Barabra Day, the Domestic Resettlement Section chief of the Office of Admissions, Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration (PRM), United States Department of State.

Day wrote, “I have been in communication with the Massachusetts state refugee coordinator’s office and had a lengthy conversation with your city attorney concerning the process of refugee placements in local communities and the issues you have raised. PRM applauds your efforts to convene meeting with the resettlement providers and we look forward to learning the outcomes of these discussions.”

Day added the information Sarno sent her “will be taken into consideration during our formal review” of the three proposals to bring refugees into the area for fiscal year 2014.

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