Over President’s Day weekend, teachers from OCDE’s Alternative Education program gathered at an Irvine hotel to transform its modest business center into a functional one-room school.
Supplies were unpacked, computers were set up, and colorful posters featuring commonly used English words were hung on the center’s otherwise staid walls, ready to greet children who had made an unimaginable journey.
“Our goal is to urgently assist our new students and to remove all roadblocks that will keep them out of school,” said Orange County Superintendent Dr. Al Mijares, “because it’s through a high quality education that will enable them to realize their dreams.”
The students who now attend this pop-up school are part of a wave of immigrants from Afghanistan in the aftermath of last summer’s Taliban takeover of their country. With the help of the U.S. government, approximately 75,000 Afghanis have been relocated to American cities, including about 500 refugees in Orange County.
Staples of American life
They are the families who assisted U.S. troops back in Afghanistan or held other positions that jeopardized their safety at home after the U.S. withdrew its forces. Through Farsi translators, they describe scenes of chaos and violence as they made their way to Kabul Airport, followed by weeks of international flights, checkpoints and extended stays on U.S. military bases.
Now they’re working with local agencies, including Uplift Charity in Anaheim and the Orange County Social Services Agency, to find housing, jobs and other staples of American life. Many also have school-age children who arrived several months removed from educational settings.
This is where the Orange County Department of Education enters the story. The department’s Alternative Education division, known as ACCESS, is schooling about 60 Afghan students at the hotels where they’ve taken up temporary residence. In classes split by grade span — partitions are used to section off one-room business centers — students receive two hours of in-person instruction each day, designed specifically for newcomers and delivered by professional ACCESS teachers.
“We worked with the local districts of where these students might attend, and ACCESS, to actually provide educational services at their locations they’re staying at now,” said Dr. Christine Olmstead, OCDE’s associate superintendent of Educational Service and interim chief academic officer.
The Afghan students have been equipped with Chromebooks and hotspots to work on assignments and practice lessons outside of class, Olmstead said. And, once a week, they do hands-on activities with OCDE’s STEM team — and exercise with the help of a P.E. specialist.
Farsi translators are on hand daily, and because at least two students are enrolled in OCDE’s Deaf and Hard of Hearing program, there’s an American Sign Language translator, as well as special schools support two days a week.
OCDE has long been responsible for serving the county’s most vulnerable student populations and supporting local districts with services necessary for their operations, including professional development, high-speed internet access and security, legal and fiscal guidance, payroll services and student enrichment. But this kind of initiative is a first.
Olmstead said the objective is to prepare students academically and socially for their future schools once housing is secured.
“As they start to transition to their permanent housing, they’re notifying us that they’re leaving, and what OCDE is doing is then calling the school district where they’re enrolling and letting them know, ‘You have a family that’s been enrolled in an OCDE program,’” she said.
County Superintendent Mijares stressed the importance of helping students gain the knowledge and wisdom necessary to prepare them for the next phase of their educational journeys — in traditional classroom settings, where they can learn, play and grow with other children their age.
“The mind never stops acquiring information,” he said, “and we are here to enhance that process.”
Uplift Charity is leading local efforts to assist Afghan families who have relocated in Orange County. If you would like to help, visit www.upliftcharity.org/donate.