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Catholic primary schools prepare to welcome migrant/refugee children

A teacher at Gran Couva RC School reads to her pupils

Some Catholic primary schools will welcome migrant and refugee children before the end of the school term, and although it may be challenging, they will have the full support of Church, government, and international bodies.

Speakers at an October 8 virtual meeting to discuss the initiative made this clear as they pledged their support to principals and teachers.

Archbishop Jason Gordon said welcoming migrant and refugee children at this time was not only difficult and “absolutely inconvenient” but “bad timing as schools figure out online classes”. But, he continued, “we have to find ways to welcome migrant children to our schools, so the UN Rights of the Child are upheld in our nation”.

The Archbishop saw the initiative as an opportunity to help integrate migrant children into the national community and in turn, encourage local pupils to become conversational in Spanish, making them “proficient in the language before secondary school”. “It is an incredible opportunity that will pay significant dividends 15 years from now for our country.”

Also addressing educators were Dr Aloys Kamuragiye, UNICEF Representative for the Eastern Caribbean, and Ingrid Kemchand, Curriculum Coordinator for Modern Languages, Ministry of Education (MoE).

Dr Kamuragiye said the United Nations agency often shared similar values with the Church as both cared for the most vulnerable, and appreciated this new collaboration. He described the initiative as the beginning of a long journey but “every journey starts with the first step”.

“UNICEF is mentally ready and committed to do the journey with you. You can count on us,” he said. “We at UNICEF are committed to supporting you the principals and teachers who are weaving this safety net within your schools”.

Dr Kamuragiye said UNICEF will sign an agreement with the Catholic Education Board of Management (CEBM) to support the schools, and Alma Jenkins Acosta, Emergency Programme Co-ordinator, UNICEF Eastern Caribbean and her team will “define precisely what support will come from UNICEF”.

He expressed optimism for the project as “when we started supporting stakeholders in Trinidad and Tobago to support migrants/refugees, we didn’t have the visibility or financial resources, but over time we have built up capacity to bring in resources. We will continue to work with our networks, the regional office, and potential donors to support your work.”

Kemchand also saw the initiative as an opportunity. She said the MoE had been working to bring Spanish “in a tangible way to primary schools for 20 years with limited success, largely because our teachers, regardless of training, don’t feel that they can speak the quality of Spanish that is needed to model for our children”.

She said this was an opportunity for native Spanish speakers to be in classrooms, having conversations and social interactions with local children.

She challenged all involved in the project to “step out in faith” and said the Ministry was “standing with you 100 per cent… we are ready to support with all that we can do”.

Kemchand said what was being attempted was “unprecedented in the history of our nation, in educationally challenging times…let us continue to walk it together and we will get to our destination we’re aiming for”.

The session included a PowerPoint presentation by Romulo Guédez Fernández, Instructor II, Spanish, Modern Language and Linguistics Department, The University of the West Indies, on the English as a Second Language (ESL) curriculum. He said the Department was available to assist teachers with training.

CEBM Chief Executive Officer Sharon Mangroo said the CEBM was working with the MoE and the Ministry of National Security to ensure all protocols are followed. She noted that no school will be “overloaded” and migrant and refugee children will not deprive any local child of a space.

During the meeting, principals and teachers responded to a poll question: ‘What will be needed for successful integration of migrant children into schools?’ Of the 76 per cent of responses, educators said training, additional support staff, social and emotional learning support, supplies and school furniture.

—Raymond Syms, Editor