Peer-tutoring Program Breaks Ground for Burmese Refugees
By Andrea Kurth
For Reporting Texas
SAN ANTONIO — To hear Van Lian tell it, enrolling in the MacTEACH program at MacArthur High School was a lifesaver. When the Burmese native arrived three years ago from a refugee camp in Thailand, Lian, then 17, felt overwhelmed and lost.
“It was a very big school,” Lian said. “The first year… was very hard because… I didn’t know any English except the basics… Big words were used a lot in class.”
Lian failed his first attempt at the TAKS English exam, a state graduation requirement, and vowed to succeed on his next try. He believes his goal would have been impossible without the help of the peer mentoring he received through MacTEACH, a program for English language learners and the only one in San Antonio public schools specially adapted to deal with an influx of Burmese refugees to the area in recent years.
MacArthur started MacTEACH in 2010 to help all its English-language learner (ELL) students pass state-mandated standardized tests by pairing them with peers in the high school’s advanced placement classes. As more Burmese refugees arrived in the district, Catholic Charities, which offers humanitarian aid to recent émigrés, asked the high school to tweak MacTEACH to accommodate their needs. All of the Burmese students had fled Myanmar, the Southeast Asian country formerly called Burma, because of religious and ethnic turmoil.
Today, the charity buses 19 Burmese refugee students of all levels — from pre-kindergarten to high school seniors — to MacArthur’s fluorescent-lit library on Tuesday and Thursday evenings. There, the students sit at round wooden tables strewn with books, colored wooden shapes, markers and calculators while MacTEACH tutors help with homework assignments and with reading and math skills.
Between 2008 and 2012, 11,351 asylum-seekers from Myanmar resettled in Texas, making the Texas Burmese community the largest of its kind in the U.S. In 2010, when this reporter graduated from MacArthur, the district had only 37 Burmese students. It now has 208, one of the state’s largest Burmese public school enrollments.
The growing numbers have presented unique challenges for teachers and administrators. San Antonio’s North East ISD, in which MacArthur is located, offers Spanish dual-language programs in 14 of its 46 elementary schools, as well as state-mandated English as a second language programs in all 14 middle schools and seven high schools. It also runs a camp every summer for refugee students. Yet MacTEACH is the only program with a facet designed specifically for Burmese refugees.
The state makes one allowance for refugee student taking standardized tests: their first year, they are exempt. But after that, the same rules apply as to other students. Burmese émigrés have a particularly tough time passing the tests, according to Elizabeth Garza, assistant director for English language learning programs at North East ISD. In 2013, half of the district’s ELL students passed the TAKS English exam, and 49 percent passed the math exam. But teachers and school officials say those rates do not apply to the Burmese students, who, they say, score lower than other ELL students. However, there is no statistical evidence to support that conclusion because the state collects no data on the birthplace of test-takers.
But teachers and school officials are sympathetic. One reason the Burmese may lag behind other ELL students is that by the time they arrive in Texas, they have often been out of school for long periods while they lived in refugee camps in Malaysia or Thailand.
“They have a lack of literacy in their own language or they don’t have a written language,” Garza said. “That is heightened when the state says the students need to take an online test and they have never seen a computer.”
Kyaw Hla Mon’s 7-year-old daughter, Thet, attends MacTEACH sessions on Tuesdays and Thursdays. She reads and jokes with the three young high school volunteers who mentor her each week, revealing a mouthful of missing teeth.
Mon says he has seen big changes in his daughter as a result of the program. Forced to flee Burma when Thet was 6 months old, Mon’s family spent nearly five years in Malaysian refugee camps before arriving in the U.S. in 2012.
“In Burma and Malaysia we were always in fear,” Mon said. “Before the program she was so quiet and afraid. Now she is happy.”
Students at other San Antonio schools do not have the MacTEACH resource. In fact, because Burmese refugees are a relatively new to San Antonio schools, teachers often lack resources to help them, says Alex Clark-Garcia, who teaches ELL classes at MacArthur. Helping her students translate their native language into English can be especially difficult, Clark-Garcia said. One impediment is that Burma is home to some 30 distinct ethnic groups, many of them with their own languages or dialects. Clark-Garcia has only one translation dictionary for students who speak the Chin/Zomi language, but none for students from other linguistic backgrounds.
“It’s not realistic at all,” Clark-Garcia says. “With the proper support and proper amount of time to let these children master [English], they would be fine, but until we come to that realization, it is going to continue to be a challenge.”
The larger Burmese immigrant population is poor. According to a January study published by the Asian Pacific Islander American Scholarship Fund, 30 percent of Burmese Americans live below the poverty line. Burmese émigrés mainly relocate to places where friends or family have settled before them, which are mainly in the southern United States.
Those populations may be unable to advocate for their children. Zeynep Isik-Ercan, an early childhood education professor who has studied Burmese immigrant populations, says Burmese parents tend to be trusting of the American school system. They may also be unable to get involved in their children’s education because of language barriers.
“Burmese parents… do not have ways to monitor the ways that their children are participating in the American culture,” Isik-Ercan said.
Nonetheless, the MacArthur High School program can point to individual success stories.
Van Lian lists passing his TAKS English test after taking it a second time in December as one of his biggest accomplishments of his life. And if he passes the TAKS math test he took on March 5, he’ll be allowed to graduate with the class of 2015.
“If I didn’t have a tutor, I would not pass any classes,” said Lian, who says his goal is to become a teacher because he’s felt the impact of teaching on his own life and knows how important it is.
“I’ve been there,” he said.