Fighting for education


 The day he sets out to register for school, Albert Pui looks like any other American high school student in his black skate shoes, dark distressed skinny jeans, v-neck shirt and black jacket. He says he’s missed school; it’s been four years since he’s been in a classroom. As an illegal refugee in Malaysia, registering for classes would have been a prison sentence.

 “If I get success in school, I want to go to college, but now I can’t talk right,” he says. “I have to graduate first. I have to work hard.”

 Albert says he’s going to use an education to get a good job. He knows he’s behind, but he says he will focus and study a lot to make it through high school. He wants to be a pilot one day.

 Within a week of landing in Seattle, Albert is registered for school, because he, like all refugee students, needs as much time as he can within the classroom. He’s missed the last four years of school, and in America, material he’s already behind on learning will be taught exclusively in English. For refugee students, school presents challenges, both cultural and intellectual. Albert must decide how much of his former culture to retain and how much of American culture to embrace, and he must learn to navigate hallways in which he is an outsider. But the main complication refugee students face is graduating: the current setup of the educational system in America renders diplomas nearly unreachable for many refugee students.

Before refugee children can register for classes, they have to take an English Placement Test, which is standardized in Washington State. Albert’s caseworker, Suiem Vankulh, picks Albert up for his test one rainy morning four days after he lands in the country. As he gets ready to leave, his mother, Helen Cer, walks the length of her modest living room, worried.

“Will this test say what grade Albert is in?” she asks Dolla Nung, her husband.

He’s not sure. As much as World Relief tries to explain the steps of the resettlement process to refugees along the way, much of their first several weeks in the country are steeped in uncertainty.

“We just do what Suiem tell us,” Helen says. Today, she’s worried that Albert’s English isn’t good enough for him to attend an American school.

Albert doesn’t say much to Sui Em as she drives him to the testing center. He mumbles a soft, “hello,” to her and stares into his lap. He’s not disrespectful; he has the air of a child who’s seen too much too soon. He taps his pencil and his foot as he takes the placement test. He knows some of the words on the test, but he’s more unsure than sure.

Albert’s worried he’ll be placed in the lowest grade the American school system offers, but he needn’t be: Scores on the placement test don’t matter when it comes to deciding the grade level for refugees ages 16 to 22; all students within this age group are placed in ninth grade. A 21-year-old refugee who speaks strong English and has attended school for years would be given freshman status, as would a 15-year-old refugee who has never held a pencil before and speaks no English.

As Albert allows Suiem to navigate him through the complicated registration process, he stares at his shoes and mumbles succinct answers to any questions directed at him. He probably looks to administration as if he doesn’t care about his education, but in reality, he’s determined to make the most of it.

Maybe it was the time he spent hiding from the Myanmar army in the jungles of his home country or the time he spent starving in a Malaysian jail that gave him his passive nature, or maybe it’s just the result of a lifetime of living under persecution paired with the pangs of adolescence, but one thing’s certain: Albert is happiest when he is going unnoticed.


“For Americans, there’s a purpose to education, and that purpose is a diploma”

He doesn’t know this yet, but Albert’s arrival in America is in perfect timing. Any later, and he likely would not have finished high school, because starting ninth grade any older than 16 makes it nearly impossible for a student to graduate.

As if transplanting from war or persecution into the American public school system weren’t hard enough, refugee students have to graduate high school before their 22nd birthdays. To do this, they must meet the Washington State high school graduation requirements, which include the completion of nineteen credits of coursework. One credit is the equivalent of one school year in the classroom, so doing this in less than four years is extremely difficult.

In addition, graduating seniors must complete a senior project, which often requires research papers and job shadows, and complete a High School and Beyond Plan, which making plans for each year of high school and for after graduation. For a sixteen-year-old refugee with a background in the classroom and some English skills, the feat is arduous; for an older one who’s never spent a day in a classroom and speaks no English, it’s nearly impossible.

 'It’s a huge problem,” says Clair Chean, director of the Kent School District Refugee Transition Center. “The graduation rate [for refugees] is very, very low. We understand, we know, but there’s nothing anyone can do about it.”

 Instead of determining class standing, the English Placement Test informs the staff at the registration center about their students’ proficiency in English, to be applied to their English Language Learner classes, which are similar to the ESL classes adult refugees take, except that they are run in schools in which most instruction is done in English. Scores are rated on a scale of one to four, and if a student scores a four, he or she is ineligible for ELL classes. But, Chean says, in the four years that he’s worked in the center, only one of the refugees who’s taken the test has received a score of four.

“I would say a good 70 percent are ones, and maybe 25 percent are twos, and the rest are threes,” he says.

 The RTC is the hub for refugee students. It outfits students with school supplies and provides them access to computers: high school curriculum assumes that students have access to a computer, Internet, and printer. For refugee parents who can’t even find work, buying these technologies is neither a possibility nor a priority. The center stretches its limited funding as far as it can to provide refugee students with extended learning from 3 to 6 p.m. every weekday. Tutors help with English and homework, and students get restricted use of the center’s five computers and printers. The amount of time an average student would spend researching and writing a paper on a computer is halved or quartered for refugees, amplifying the difficulty of completing homework assignments in a non-native tongue.

 Chean says the system in place for refugee students is unfair, and that the problem is amplified by the schools themselves. Even though all students in the public school system are entitled to an academic adviser, most of them don’t get it, and are left toe flounder the hallways of a foreign and confusing country by themselves.

 “Every time I talk about this, I become very bitter,” Chean says. “I blame a lot of this on counselors. Again, it’s about priorities. They know refugee students won’t say anything, so they aren’t going to help them out. And there’s nothing I can do. I scream, I email people, I step on people’s toes, but nothing changes.”

 Albert is lucky that he’s entering the public school system at sixteen. The RTC will do whatever it can to be sure he finishes school, and more often than not, a 15- or 16-year-old refugee, even one who has never been in a classroom or spoken English before, will scrape through the program and graduate. But for the older refugees, the RTC can do little more than try to do the good it can in the time the students have left before they “age out.”

 “As a public school, technically we’re not allowed to turn anyone away,” Chean says. “Most often, the students are strong students and they have inner drive. It’s an, ‘I was given a second chance and I’m going to make the best of it,’ kind of attitude. But if you put the student in who was 19 or 20 already, the graduation rate is probably less than 10 percent.”

 Of course, older refugees can opt out of high school. Chean says he often advises refugees 17 and older to skip high school and instead seek their GEDs at the local community college. This suggestion is not always well received, though – as if the RTC did not have hurdles enough, one of its highest is the differing cultural understandings of education that refugees bring with them to America.

 “For them, it’s like, they go to school and they learn something – that’s the value,” Chean says. “For Americans, there’s a purpose to education, and that purpose is a diploma.”


“There’s too many Burmese people here”

 Albert understands that his diploma will be the ticket to college, to a better job, and to the life in America he and his family want. After five days in school, his optimism about education hasn’t wavered.

 “Sometimes, it’s hard, but I keep trying,” he says one Thursday evening, lying on his bed. This is the first time he’s had his own room, and it has the sterile look of a room that’s expecting more people or more things to move in. Next to the bed sits a small stack of books; otherwise, the room is empty.

 He’s reading a book, but it’s not for school. It’s just after 7 p.m., and he’s finished his homework already. “This is my favorite reading book,” he says, glancing at the cover of a loosely bound book of fables. “I borrow from library. I like to read a lot.”

 So far, he likes high school. But as happy as he is with his new life, he doesn’t forget about the persecution that drove him and his fellow Burmese refugees so far from their homes.        

 There’s a high refugee population in Kent schools, many of them Burmese.

“I have too many friends,” he says. “There’s too many Burmese people here.”

 Albert goes to the RTC every day after school to get help with his homework and to use the center’s computers. The shift to having a set schedule every day is difficult for him to adapt to after so many years outside the classroom, but he’s grateful every day for the opportunity he has to become educated.

As someone who’s had learning taken from him, he appreciates school in a way that other people never can. But following lectures about conceptual topics, such as algebra, is doubly hard for Alfred because he’s taught in a tongue he’s not yet fluent in. History, too, is hard, because he lacks the collective knowledge American students inherit from birth. He hears people talk about Thanksgiving, but the holiday means nothing to him. He’s living in the country whose story he does not know, and his diploma depends on him learning it.

“Sometimes, I think my head is dizzy,” Albert says. “Sometimes I can’t hear my teacher because she is very fast. I tell her to talk slowly.”

Without the RTC, Albert would have nobody to consult for help with homework, for navigating the highly specific high school graduation, and for getting him the supplies he needs – like a pencil and paper – to succeed. His daily trips there solidify the concepts he’s been learning in school, and he relishes each moment he gets to use a computer for research and writing. For him, homework is a novelty, a privilege.

By December, Albert has found a rhythm for his life: he leaves home in the morning, goes to the RTC in the afternoon, and sits in his room with the door closed in the evening: the tendencies of adolescence transcend cultural barriers.

He listens to music almost constantly, from Katy Perry to Akon. Eminem is his favorite, but he’ll listen to anything with a tempo. He streams music he recorded from the radio on a scratched, dented and deactivated cell phone; it works only for playing music and setting alarms, but still, he carries it with him everywhere. He knows he looks more American when he’s holding it, and it makes him feel more secure when he’s walking the hallways of his high school to have this emblem of social accessibility in his hand.

“It’s not good quality,” he says. “But it’s all I have.”

More than anything, Albert wants an iPod. He had one in Malaysia that he bought after working illegally washing the windows of cars on streets. But when he found out his family was moving, he decided to give it to a friend as a parting gift. In Malaysia, electronic devices were very cheap, so things like televisions and iPods were more attainable. The only thing Albert couldn’t have was a computer, because the government issues permits for buying computers; as an illegal resident, he would never qualify. He gave away his MP3 player because he wanted to leave his friend with a gift, and he envisioned washing windows in America for several days and buying a new one.

“Here, MP3 players are very expensive,” Albert says. “I thought I can get a new one. I didn’t know.”

He knows it’ll be a long time before he or his family will be able to spare several hundred dollars to buy an iPod at American prices – if ever. Albert wishes that one of the things the UN would have told his family as they prepared to leave for America was that everything here is much more expensive. He wasn’t prepared.

So far, this is the only shadow of a complaint he’s made about America. He says he doesn’t miss anything about home or Malaysia. Here, he fell easily into his group of Burmese friends, whom he plays soccer with whenever possible. They flock together in classes and at lunch, but they leave their Chin language behind them.

“Talking is hard,” Albert says. “I tell my friend to speak to me with English so I can get better.”

The longer he goes to school, the more social he becomes. Even in the wake of the early afternoon sunsets of winter in the Pacific Northwest, Albert starts spending most of his evenings playing soccer with his friends

“At home, I’m not happy,” he says. “I’m only happy at school. Here is very boring. If I go to school, I can talk with friends and do the things I want.”

As his social life develops, though, he doesn’t forget what’s driving him: academics.

“I study very hard,” he says. “I want to be pilot. I could go anywhere I wanted. But I need to work hard. There are many things to learn.”