The Bowling Green International Center is working with a special stakeholder group that will address local school superintendents’ concerns that their schools have been “overwhelmed” by the number of refugee arrivals in recent years.
“We’re barely getting by,” Warren County Public Schools Superintendent Rob Clayton said.
Clayton was joined Thursday by Bowling Green Independent School District Superintendent Gary Fields at the International Center’s fourth quarterly meeting with local resettlement stakeholders. Together, the two superintendents emphasized a need for what they described as a more sustainable approach to refugee resettlement.
“We’re at capacity,” Fields said, describing the dearth of resources available to current English learner students in his school district.
By the end of the school year, Fields said, his district anticipates reaching the 20 percent mark for students classified as English learners. In Warren County Public Schools, one in five students fall into that category.
“As of September, we will have 190 Swahili speakers in our school district,” he said. “We have one translator.”
The situation is similar in Warren County Public Schools.
Warren Central High School Principal Joey Norman also attended the International Center meeting Thursday and said there are 159 students classified as English learners at WCHS. That doesn’t include the nearby GEO International High School on the high school’s campus. Another 58 WCHS students are “monitored,” meaning they are moving out of English learner status.
“We have three certified teachers to serve those 217 kids,” Norman said. “That’s 70 kids per teacher.”
In some cases, due to the nature of their persecution and displacement from their homeland, refugees have interrupted educational experiences.
Bearing the responsibility for educating those students is sometimes a Herculean effort, Clayton said, citing an example of a 19-year-old student with no formal education.
“Where do we put them? We’ll hug them. We’ll feed them. We’ll clothe them, but we’re not miracle workers,” he said.
During the meeting Thursday – the final quarterly meeting of the International Center’s fiscal year ending Sept. 30 – the center shared a report of its total refugee arrivals.
Overall, the center received 513 refugees as of Sept. 20. That’s up from 297 refugees resettled in Bowling Green during the previous fiscal year.
Most of those primary refugees – 328 in total – came from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Refugees arrivals from Myanmar came in second at 126 refugees. More than half of those arrivals were children under age 17.
As a state, Kentucky ranks fifth overall in the nation for refugee arrivals, having received 1,377 refugees as of Aug. 31. Kentucky falls just behind California, which has received 1,627 arrivals this fiscal year by that date.
According to the numbers compiled by the Kentucky Office for Refugees, the country is close to reaching the cap of 30,000 refugee arrivals set by President Donald Trump’s administration for this fiscal year.
On Thursday, the Trump administration announced plans to slash that number to 18,000 for the upcoming federal fiscal year beginning Oct. 1, a historic low for the nation’s refugee resettlement program.
Despite the uncertainty around what number the Trump administration would set, the Bowling Green International Center has seen a steady stream of arrivals.
This is mainly due to the role a refugee’s U.S. ties play in the resettlement process.
Refugees can ask to be resettled with family members already established in the country. The International Center also sees a significant number of “secondary migrants,” who initially resettle in other parts of the country and then travel to Bowling Green, often seeking work.
On Thursday, both superintendents said they receive a limited amount of state and federal dollars to educate English learner students. Often, the cost comes out of their own general fund.
Speaking to reporters after the meeting Thursday, Fields estimated that more than 1 percent of the nation’s refugee arrivals have resettled in Bowling Green this year. By appearing at the meeting, Fields said both superintendents wanted to start a conversation with other local stakeholders.
“We need help,” he said. “We don’t think we’re able to provide the best services possible for these students.”
Clayton made it clear that the community is not opposed to resettling refugees, but stressed that schools need resources to accomplish that goal.
“If you asked our staff, top to bottom, they will just rave about our English language learners – how much effort they put into the work, how much they appreciate our work as educators,” he said.
Next week, an advisory group of local resettlement stakeholders will hold a meeting at the Warren County Public Library’s Bob Kirby Branch to discuss next steps in tackling the issue.