PA group hiring a cultural navigator to help refugee students resettling in Lancaster

October 4, 2021 CBS21 By Megan Magensky

Several refugee organizations in Lancaster are preparing for families from Afghanistan to resettle in Central PA. But what about getting kids ready for school? One group is working with the School District of Lancaster to help students and their families navigate resources and American public school norms.

Communities in Schools is a national organization that helps connect students and families with resources when schools can’t. Over the course of the pandemic they noticed refugee and immigrant students were falling behind and realized cultural differences might be to blame.

So, they’re hiring a cultural navigator to help.

“We were seeing a lot of students just kind of disengaging with school and not showing up,” said Lyndsey Sturkey, senior director of programs for Communities in Schools of PA. “We found that those rates of disengagement were disproportionately higher with students from refugee and immigrant backgrounds.”

Public school can already be challenging for kids who face barriers, but for refugee and immigrant students those barriers can come in the form of customs and cultures being misunderstood by school staff.

“(It’s) A lot of it is rapport building with the parents to be able to educate them about the resources and opportunities at the school and also to educate the school about the expectations of the parents or cultural differences,” said Jeremy Rhoads, the cultural navigator working at Fulton Elementary. His mom is an immigrant from Romania. Rhoads speaks several languages and loves learning about other cultures.

“It’s a big connection to first understand their cultures and the language of the people we’re trying to connect with to have that cultural sensitivity to help them understand how things are different,” Rhoads said.

A good example of why understanding different cultures is important in schools is

“The idea of truancy or absenteeism. In some countries it is not a crime to not come to school. So a student might be staying home and they might not understand there’s consequences to not being in attendance at school,” Rhoads said.

Dozens of refugee families from Afghanistan will be coming to Lancaster to resettle over the next several months. One of the resettlement agency says they’re expecting between 20 and 30 refugees from Afghanistan every month through March.

“Coming to a different culture different country without language without technology skills is really really difficult so what we are doing is trying to figure out a plan,” said Khem Subeti the community education coordinator for IU13.

All of these organizations are working together to better help make Lancaster feel a little more like home.

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