After suspending for several years, a group dedicated to more smoothly integrating refugees and immigrants into the fabric of Bowling Green has reformed and held its latest meeting Tuesday.
Gathered at the Warren County Public Library Bob Kirby Branch, the group consisted of representatives from both local school districts and staffers from the offices of U.S. Sen. Rand Paul and Rep. Brett Guthrie, along with other organizations that have a stake in immigrant and refugee issues. About 40 people attended the meeting.
Skip Cleavinger, the recently retired director of Warren County Public Schools’ programming for English learner students, opened the meeting by describing the history of the group, which originally formed about a decade ago.
The group’s conversations, Cleavinger said, have always hinged on “building and strengthening the capacity to serve immigrant and refugee community members” and assisting “our neighbors, our brothers and sisters here in this community, with their acculturation process.”
Last week, during a meeting at the Bowling Green International Center on refugee resettlement developments, the superintendents of the Bowling Green Independent School District and Warren County Public Schools voiced concerns about their school systems’ ability to handle additional refugee arrivals.
Both school districts receive limited state and federal dollars to cover the cost of educating refugee students, who are often English learners and have disrupted schooling because of their flight from violence and persecution in their homelands.
“We need help,” BGISD Superintendent Gary Fields told reporters after the meeting. “We don’t think we’re able to provide the best services possible for these students.”
In an interview, Cleavinger said the recent formation of the Community Partnership for Immigrant and Refugee Families is not a direct response to the concerns raised by the superintendents last week.
The group was resurrected at the suggestion of the Kentucky Office for Refugees and it held its first meeting in May.
On Tuesday, the meeting acted as a forum for organizational representatives to reveal logistical hurdles they’ve faced as they’ve tried to welcome immigrants and refugees into the community.
A lack of resources and funding was a common concern, along with being able to adequately address migrants’ mental health needs.
As a family resource center coordinator at Cumberland Trace Elementary School, Rebecca Perez often works to remove non-academic barriers to classroom learning. Through her school’s center, she provides the essentials – clothing, toothpaste and even food.
Her fluency in Spanish, however, gives her a particular edge.
In her work with immigrant families, Perez has found that students often don’t have a proper place to lay their head at night. They often lack beds, she said.
Immigrant families are often seeking asylum, a form of legal immigration, and due to their status as migrant workers who travel to job sites they often don’t have health insurance, Perez said.
“We have students that are at school that need cavities filled, and they don’t have the money to pay out of pocket,” Perez said.
Due to their status as immigrants, some families are separated. In one such family, Perez said, a female student lives alone with her father while her mother and two other younger siblings remain in Honduras. The student’s father often works weekends, leaving her in the care of a babysitter.
“She doesn’t have anybody on the weekend,” Perez said. “But school is her place for her to come and shine, and she loves coming to school.”
Dee Anna Crump, the current director of English learner programs at Warren County Public Schools, said her district has struggled to find qualified applicants to fill positions to serve English learner students.
“Quite honestly, we could double our staff if we had the funding,” she said. “There’s definitely the need there for it.”
Last year, the school district enrolled 359 students through its GEO Center, which serves as a welcome center for immigrant and refugee students.
This year, the district is already approaching that number, having enrolled 321 students through the center so far, Crump said.
With more than 90 languages and dialects spoken in its schools, interpretation and translation is becoming a “huge barrier,” Crump said.
“With that being said, I think we’re doing an amazing job with what we have.”