Afghan refugees are arriving in North Texas. How are Fort Worth schools preparing?

As families fleeing Afghanistan continue to arrive in North Texas, school officials in Fort Worth are preparing to welcome an influx of new refugee students.

A small number of students from Afghanistan have already arrived in the district, and school officials expect more to arrive by the end of the year. The district’s academy for refugees and other new arrivals moved to a new, smaller location at the beginning of the school year, leaving some supporters worried about possible space issues if refugee students arrived in Fort Worth in large numbers.

But officials say the school has space to accommodate those new students. If the academy outgrows its current location, the district could move it again in a few years, this time to a larger campus, said Cloris Rangel, executive director of the district’s bilingual and ESL programs.

“We are ready to receive them with open arms,” Rangel said.

Texas to receive more than 4,000 Afghan refugees

Last month, the Associated Press reported Texas was projected to receive 4,481 of the nearly 37,000 refugees who made up the first wave of Afghan nationals being relocated to the United States. U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said last month that the U.S. expects to admit more than 50,000 Afghan refugees into the country following the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan.

Fort Worth school officials have been told Tarrant County can expect as many as 400 refugees from Afghanistan, with about a third of those being school-aged children. Although there’s no clear timetable for when those students will arrive, Rangel said she expects to see some of them before the end of the year.

Not all of those students will necessarily end up in the Fort Worth school district, Rangel said, but the district is prepared to welcome any newcomers who do enroll there.

Katelin Cortney, a spokesperson for Catholic Charities of Fort Worth, said the organization resettled 28 Afghan children during the 2020-21 fiscal year, which ended at the end of last month. It’s difficult to predict exactly how many Afghan families will arrive in the coming months, she said.

“The landscape keeps shifting and we are actually truly unaware of much before being informed of arrivals,” Cortney said.

Chris Kelley, a spokesperson with Refugee Services of Texas, said the organization is awaiting projections on how many refugees it can expect to arrive in the state during the 2021-22 fiscal year. During the last fiscal year, the organization’s Fort Worth office resettled 108 refugees, 66 of whom were Afghan nationals holding special immigrant visas, Kelley said, meaning they assisted the U.S. military in some capacity during the war in Afghanistan.

Most Afghan students will go to International Newcomer Academy

Most of the Afghan students who come to Fort Worth will begin at the International Newcomer Academy, a school for refugee students and others who have recently immigrated to the United States. Rangel said 11 Afghan students are already enrolled at the academy. Students typically spend a year or two years at the academy before moving on to another school in the district.

The academy moved from its old location in a converted department store on Camp Bowie Boulevard to a school building on Valentine Street, about a mile east of Arlington Heights High School. The new building is large enough to hold about 400 students, Rangel said. The academy’s current enrollment stands at 247, meaning the school has room to grow at its new site.

If the academy outgrows its current space, district officials may move it again some years in the future, as other school buildings open up, Rangel said. If that move becomes necessary, Rangel said the district would keep the school together rather than splitting it among several sites, as officials considered doing earlier this year. During conversations held before the move, the academy’s teachers and community supporters impressed upon district officials the need to keep the school together at a single location, she said.

As a part of the move, the district also began sending newcomers who are 16 and older to Success High School, a school for undercredited students, rather than having them begin at the academy. Nearly all teachers at Success have gone through the same specialized training to prepare them to work with newcomers, Rangel said, and those who haven’t already received that training are going through it now.

Academy’s class sizes create challenges

Mahika Jhangiani, a teacher at the academy, said the number of students in her class creates logistical challenges, even if her school is nowhere near its capacity. Jhangiani teaches sixth and seventh grade in a portable classroom building. Because she can’t move bookshelves and other classroom furniture, it can be difficult to create usable space, she said.

Jhangiani has 18 students in her class. She acknowledged that’s a much smaller class size than most teachers in traditional schools have. But the ideal class size for newcomers is about 12-15 students, she said. Because her students are learning English and their course materials at the same time, they rely heavily on group work and conversations, she said. That kind of instruction doesn’t work well with larger classes, she said.

“If I have a class of 30 kids all talking at the same time, it’s not going to work,” she said.

Despite those challenges, Jhangiani said teachers at the academy would find ways to make sure new students get the education and preparation they need. Without a clear picture of how many Afghan students will enroll in the district or a timeline for when they might arrive, it’s difficult to know what to expect, she said. But teachers at the academy and across the district are flexible and committed to giving students every chance to succeed, she said.

How to help

Several Fort Worth refugee resettlement agencies are seeking monetary and in-kind donations, as well as volunteers, to help Afghan refugees arriving in North Texas.

Catholic Charities of Fort Worth is seeking donations of Walmart gift cards to buy furniture and set up apartments for newly arrived Afghan refugees. The organization is also seeking stand-by volunteers to help with setting up apartments.

Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services is seeking volunteers to help resettle Afghan refugees arriving in Fort Worth. The organization needs volunteers to help with airport pick-ups, setting up apartments, providing meals and other services. The organization is also seeking mentors and English-language tutors.