Refugee resettlement agency wins a grant to help students better learn English


By Kassidy Arena, Iowa Public Radio

The Catherine McAuley Center in Cedar Rapids is working on a statewide ELL plan specifically for refugees, humanitarian parolees and survivors of human trafficking.

A refugee resettlement agency has won the bid to create the statewide plan for English Language Learners (ELL) through the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement.


The Cedar Rapids-based Catherine McAuley Center is the only official refugee resettlement agency in eastern Iowa. Two of its programs, education services and refugee and immigrant services, partnered together to fill out the application for the grant which funds a study to gather data about the state’s refugee communities and funds to compensate for the time needed to develop a plan.

Sara Zejnic, the director of refugee and immigrant services, said the intent of the study is to look at where there are large refugee populations and then determine what they most need in their K-12 education. The Catherine McAuley Center will also work with community partners to determine those needs.

“I think it’s also shown us the importance of equity and the importance of making sure that districts across the state schools across the state have the resources necessary to welcome and support refugees and immigrants in their communities,” Zejnic said.


Although the Catherine McAuley Center was awarded the grant from the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement, the funds will be dispersed by the Iowa Bureau of Refugee Services.

Zejnic added an effective plan is especially important now that an increased number of new refugee arrivals are expected in Iowa.

The plan is mainly geared toward refugees, humanitarian parolees and survivors of human trafficking. But others will be served by the updated ELL plan too. And it’s a term Zejnic unofficially coined within the halls of the Catherine McAuley Center.


Anne Dugger, the director of education services, explained why Zejnic’s term of ‘collateral beneficiaries’ was so important.

“Normally we hear collateral damage, but this is actually the beautiful, flip it on its on its side collateral beneficiaries to this state plan,” she said. “So when you look at ‘Hey, we’re making a state plan for refugees, the collateral beneficiaries are immigrants, any other ELL, English language learners in the school population.”

Dugger clarified any student in the K-12 system in the U.S. is entitled to a public education, regardless of immigration status. That’s according to the 1982 U.S. Supreme Court case Plyler v. Doe which determined how all states should administer public education guidelines.

This, Dugger said, means some students could be falling behind if there isn’t a strong ELL plan to support them. So the children who come from a family of immigrants may only speak Spanish at home and therefore not be able to fully keep up in a class taught in English. Dugger said these kinds of students are included as “collateral beneficiaries.”


To demonstrate the importance of an effective ELL plan for all students, Dugger set up an example: fractions.

“That student might not know the language for how to speak about fractions, or maybe not even our numeral system, right? What they do know is how to feed a family of seven for a week, with a very small amount of food,” she paused. “You have fraction knowledge, if you can do that.”

The new ELL plan will adhere to what Dugger and Zejnic call a strengths-based approach. So they will also work with teachers in how to recognize instances where students may have the knowledge of a particular lesson, but just aren’t able to communicate it. They’ll also have segments of the plan devoted to family engagement.

For the older students who start with Iowa’s ELL school programming, the Catherine McAuley Center has a plan for them too. In the past, Dugger has seen students age out of the system before they can really benefit from a full education.

“We’ve seen kids just devastated by this,” she said.

That’s why a part of their plan also includes a support system for students who fall into this category. They want to offer credit courses over the summer for kids who are close to aging out of the system.

Zejnic said such programming won’t just be helpful for the students, but also for their communities. For one, they can help economically by confidently joining the workforce.


“While that is extremely important, there’s this kind of less tangible benefit that we see with refugees and immigrants being successful in local communities and being able to integrate and being able to just really enter into and be welcomed by local communities. And it’s the diversity that comes with it. It’s new ideas, it’s new ways of solving problems, it’s social cohesion,” she said.

The opportunity to plan the ELL program is great, Zejnic admitted, but they do have to work within their budgeting limits.

“We can dream big, we can come up with these big programs, we can come up with broad scale things that could and would help students and parent engagement. But at the end of the day, there’s limited funding available,” she explained.

The grant to complete the study and the ELL plan was only about $20,000, Kelsey Steines, the director of development and communications said. She said the average implementation costs of a new ELL program is about $150,000.

It’s estimated the new ELL plan will go into effect at the beginning of next school year.

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