UT researchers address refugee education issues

The University of Tennessee’s Center for the Study of Youth and Political Conflict  is conducting research intended to improve educational success of refugees in the United States.

Within the last 30 years, nearly three million refugees have resettled in the states. Last year 170 refugees were placed in Knoxville, and many were children in need of an education. These children face inherent challenges when entering the U.S. school system; A large portion has almost no prior education, and almost all of them have language barriers.

Four-year graduation rates among refugees and newly arrived immigrants vary greatly from institution to institution, and the Center is committed to finding out what factors achieve success through research.

Last May, associate professor Clea McNeely spearheaded a project to address these issues. With funding from The Center for the Study of Youth and Political Violence and the Department of Public Health, she helped organize a conference at the Urban Institute in Washington D.C.

“The idea I had was to bring together the best minds in the field and let’s have a conference,” McNeely said.

The conference had two goals: to identify what is currently known about strategies to foster school success among refugee students and to find out critical gaps in the basic and applied research.

During the conference, the panel was able to come up with 36 priority research questions that needed to be addressed. Those questions are currently being fielded by a larger group of researchers and practitioners in the field and will be analyzed in the coming weeks.

One question addresses how the U.S. school system places refugees based on their age and not their education level. In some cases, refugee students are put at an immediate disadvantage.

“If you’re 15 and there [are] no records from where you came from, we don’t know anything, and you’re put in 10th grade,” McNeely said. “All of a sudden you’re put in geometry, and you’ve never seen multiplication.”

Because of these issues, the center hopes to improve the educational experience of refugee children.

“These people bring tremendous strengths with them,” McNeely said. “That’s important to remember, and they fare, despite all these challenges, much better than we would expect.”

Edited by Maggie Jones