Posted on September 29, 2021

California Schools Prepare for Thousands of Afghan Refugee Students

Diana Lambert, KQED, September 20, 2021

In California, home to the largest number of Afghan refugees in the country, school officials are preparing for an influx of students who fled Afghanistan with their families after the Taliban seized power in the country last month.

Schools are especially busy in Sacramento and Fremont, which have two of the largest Afghan communities in the state. Over 40% of the nation’s Afghan refugees have resettled in the Sacramento region in recent years, according to Jessie Tientcheu, chief executive officer of Opening Doors, a resettlement agency based in Sacramento.

Elk Grove Unified School District began offering culturally appropriate meals and setting aside rooms in many of its middle and high schools for prayer during Muslim holidays in preparation for the additional Afghan students it expects in the next month. San Juan Unified is offering Saturday school for English learners, and Fremont Unified is planning to hire more translators.

Sacramento school officials have been meeting weekly with representatives from resettlement agencies to prepare for the students. Resettlement agencies partner with the federal government to ensure refugees have food, clothing and housing, as well as medical and mental health services, among other things, for 90 days after their arrival in a city. After that, school districts often take on the role of liaison between the family and social service organizations, offering translators and guidance.


Sacramento-area school officials have been told to expect about 1,200 new students from Afghanistan to enroll in area schools in the next few months, but the number was estimated before more than 100,000 Afghans were evacuated and could be higher, Tientcheu said.

So far, California school district officials interviewed by EdSource reported only a trickle of refugee enrollments, but Tientcheu says many of the families that have already arrived are completing required vaccinations and medical appointments before enrolling their children in school. Some are living in temporary housing and are waiting to move to permanent homes before starting school.

California school districts with Afghan student populations are offering wraparound services for refugee families, including dedicated staff to enroll students in school, language classes for parents and students, and translators to help explain schoolwork or make medical appointments. Districts also refer families to community resources that provide food, housing and medical care, among other services.

Elk Grove Unified, a district of 63,000 students in south Sacramento County, has about 2,000 student refugees from Afghanistan, said Lisa Levasseur, a program specialist in the district’s Family and Community Engagement Department. The number of students started increasing about four years ago. Now, the Afghan population is the fastest-growing ethnicity in the district, Levasseur said. She said the refugees are sometimes attracted to the Elk Grove area because it has larger apartments that allow extended families to live together.

District services for Afghan refugees have increased with their numbers. The district has opened two welcome centers, but Levasseur would like to open two more. At the center, families can enroll students in school, get referrals for social services or find tutoring help. District staff also help parents find jobs and operate support groups for family members.


San Juan Unified, a district of 57,000 students, has 3,000 refugee students from Afghanistan — half of its English learner population. Students who have immigrated from other countries sometimes transfer to San Juan Unified from other districts because it has 60 bilingual staff members, 11 translators and 12 community resource assistants, as well as 100 students who speak both their language and English who work as after-school tutors {snip}


School districts fund refugee or newcomer programs from a number of different sources. In San Juan Unified, the program is funded with federal Title I money for lower-income students and Title III money for English learners and immigrants. The district also has grants from the California Health and Human Services Agency and uses some of its state Local Control Funding Formula dollars.


Fremont Unified School District staff also have been working overtime to prepare for the new students. After school staff heard the news of the fall of the Afghan government, they immediately met to evaluate the services the district currently has for refugee students and to determine what types of services need to be added, said Christie Rocha, director of federal and state programs at the district.

Fremont has had a large Afghan population that goes back several generations, so an influx of refugees who want to move near family is expected {snip}


“We will welcome them with open arms,” Rocha said. “If they have any social-emotional, housing or basic necessity needs, we will connect them to the right resources.”

Los Angeles Unified, which has more than 600,000 students, can’t say how many Afghan refugee students have enrolled in the district so far, but it is prepared to offer any who come academic, health and social-emotional services, said Lydia Acosta Stephens, executive director of multilingual and multicultural education.