Series: Looking ahead to God’s glory
February 24, 2021
‘Instil proper Catholic values’ —Archbishop to administrators
February 24, 2021

Welcoming migrant children into RC schools

Principals, teachers trained in virtual forum

By Lara Pickford-Gordon
Twitter: @gordon_lp

Principals and teachers at Catholic primary schools attended a virtual forum February 15–16 aimed at equipping them with the knowledge and skills needed to facilitate the transition of migrant children into schools where spaces are available.

Last year, Archbishop Jason Gordon announced support for RC schools to provide education for migrant children and asked teachers to welcome them. He saw an opportunity for learning and for local children to become more fluent in Spanish.

The Catholic Education Board of Management (CEBM) is collaborating with the Living Water Community (LWC) to ensure this becomes a reality, and the conditions agreed to in a meeting between the Minister of Education and the Archbishop were fulfilled.

Alma Jenkins Acosta, UNICEF emergency programme co-ordinator of the Eastern Caribbean, presenting on ‘Impact of trauma on learning’ suggested principals and teachers view a documentary titled ‘Paper Tigers’. The documentary looked at a child going through traumatic experiences and the “learning brain and the survival brain.” Such children can show a lot of stress.

“That is why some children get into avoidance pattern and they eventually can drop out of schools,” she said.

The film showed that the school tailored its programmes to support children, ensuring they have a nurturing environment and built positive relationships with the teachers. Jenkins Acosta added the teachers in turn created an environment for the child to make mistakes/fail and learn.

“This makes children feel integrated into the school and social fabric because the school is not standing alone; the school is within a community and … they also feel embraced by the school.”

Jenkins Acosta touched on the impact of play on the child’s brain when “positive hormones” are generated and subsequently positive emotions. Other benefits identified are supporting the development of socio-emotional skills and linkages with adults and teaching rules of engagement.

She said the children the schools were receiving may have different views and cultural values so play would be a good way to introduce them to the expectations in the classroom. Cultural and recreational activities can give the migrant child a sense of belonging and local children can learn about the culture, history, and gastronomic heritage of Venezuela.

Collaboration between the school and families for the benefit of the children was also highlighted by Jenkins Acosta. “If families feel supported … like they are being listened to and they are connected, they also feel they will do a better job with you.”


Experience at La Romaine RC

For just over six months, an underutilised building at La Romaine RC was the site of an education programme for migrant and refugee children ages five to 17 years. It was conducted under the ‘Equal Place’ initiative implemented through a partnership of the LWC, TTVSOLNET (Trinidad and Tobago-Venezuela Solidarity Network), UNHCR (the United Nations Refugee Agency) and UNICEF (United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund).

The facilitators follow the local curriculum from primary level to Caribbean Secondary Entrance Certificate for most of the children, while others access Daware Global, an accredited distance education programme for Spanish speakers.

Equal Place opened its doors September 9, 2019 and was closed along with all local learning spaces with effect March 14, 2020.  The programme currently services approximately 1,100 migrant and refugee children in accordance with the national guidelines for learning spaces.

La Romaine RC was one of eight sites used for Equal Place. Though operating apart from the RC school, there were occasions when the children had opportunities to interact and participate in activities together. La Romain RC principal Sunil Ramadhar shared some insights from the experience.

He said from 2019, there were approximately 75 to 100 children accommodated with “two entities” on the compound. Although there were concerns, things ran smoothly.

After some time, the school asked for the migrant children to be part of some of the school’s activities. “That would have led to greater integration and a better learning environment for migrants and students of the school.”

Observing the migrant children’s facial expressions and mannerisms elicited empathy.  Ramadhar said, “they would have experienced so much more than we were not accustomed to–for example, their living conditions, whether they had eaten, the fact they are not at their homes.”

He said it was a joy to see them relaxed and enjoy the “basic things” children of La Romaine RC were accustomed to, like playing together and being able to share snacks. He acknowledged that it all took time.

Key to helping the experience was having open arms and hearts. The principal said the school learned about the children’s living conditions from some of their tutors. “It made the crossing of the barriers for our children and parents to really understand and to ensure they were taken care of just as any child at La Romaine would be.”

The children got around the language barrier and had their own language for communication. He observed some girls in the Standard Four and Five developed a routine on mornings of looking out for the migrant children and escorting them to their classrooms.

Ramadhar said it was critical for the school to encourage and engage parents. This was integral in developing an inclusive, multicultural ethos. The migrant and local parents must be sensitised to understand each other, “to find some sort of common ground.”

Ramadhar said early on, some parents shared concerns about health issues, vaccines, and other things. It was critical to assure parents the school would not jeopardise any of the children.

He said school administrators have to work out policies and procedures for the migrant children to be integrated. Ramadhar said he looked forward to no longer referring to the children as migrants but as students of La Romaine RC. “I know that the children especially are going to embrace that.” He described the migrant children as “very loving” when they are treated with love.

“They open up and tell you certain things …I had to move around with my Spanish translator on my phone but eventually figured it out and they were anxious to talk to you.”

Other topics covered in the training were: ‘Human, migrant and child rights’, ‘Teaching in multicultural settings’, ‘Supporting the integration of migrant children’ and ‘Child Safeguards.’

The modules were conducted by an Education Working Group, which consists of representatives from key stakeholders including CEBM, the Ministry of Education, international donor agencies, LWC and other local non-governmental organisations.