By: Alina Rainsford ‘20
Our team had an amazing few days at the 20th Annual ILA conference in West Palm Beach, Florida. We were tasked with analyzing a contemporary socio-political-economic problem on a notional or global level. Our topic of research was applying transformational leadership to address the lack of adequate public education to refugee students resettled in the USA. We chose to focus on urban refugees as 60 percent of refugees are now living in cities and dispersed among host communities rather than in camps. Whereas refugees in traditional camps were offered educational services within the camps, urban refugees must be more self-reliant in meeting their basic needs and finding educational opportunities. Hence, urban refugees face the challenge of integrating themselves into formal and informal economies and existing structures, namely local education systems.
More than half of all refugees are school-aged, thus it is alarming that refugees are five times more likely to be out of school than the global average. Millions of refugee children and adolescents do not enroll in schools in their host country: only 50 percent of refugee children have access to primary school; only 22 percent of refugee youth have access to secondary school; and only 1 percent of refugees have access to higher education. Past research has supported the need to ensure the educational needs of refugees are met, as past research indicates education is important in social and emotional healing of refugee students. As the average length of displacement for refugees is up to 20 years, now is a critical time to address the lack of educational access for refugees.
We researched five systemic causes that have contributed to the lack of access to education for refugee students in the USA: Individual, Social, Cultural, Political, and Economic. In terms of individual systemic causes, refugee students often cope with post-traumatic stress disorder, homesickness and stress over family separation. Social systemic causes include overcrowded and underfunded public schools and teachers lacking adequate training and resources to properly support refugee students. Cultural barriers include xenophobia in host communities, and varying levels of English proficiency in the refugee students. Economic factors include the fact that refugee students are often expected to work to provide for their families. Additionally, resource allocation is left up to each individual school district, and thus reflects the socio-economic condition of the area, and varies significantly from area to area. Furthermore, there is no one unified system to place students in different schools. Politically, support for refugees fluctuates.
Our solution is to apply transformational leadership in 3 ways: building a coalition of existing organizations dedicated to the cause to streamline resources and efficiently work together; creating an interdisciplinary task force at the city level comprising of local legislators, economists, psychologists, educators, and representatives from organizations that work directly with refugees; and lastly, partnering with education technology startups to set up personalized curricula online to get the students up to speed, whether that be learning English, or catching up on core subjects. In each solution, transformational leadership is used to combine separate and disjoint initiatives to achieve a shared common goal. Additionally, in the task force, team transformational leadership is used, and the members of the task forces are influencing each other to achieve their common goal.
During this conference, our team changed from a group of acquaintances to a high-functioning team that collaborated very effectively. We rehearsed our presentation really effectively, ensuring we had smooth transitions and an engaging narrative, reminding our audience why they should care about this issue. We attended many sessions at the conference, from leadership in times of crisis, which was very applicable to our presentation, to women in leadership. The experience helped us all develop our collaboration and presentation skills, and was a rewarding experience, as we got to apply something we had learned about in school to a real world issue that we all deeply care about. We are thankful to KLI for making this experience possible!
*Student Team Members: Leya Aronoff ’19, Alina Rainsford ’20, Vanessa Romo ’19, Christian Tchamitchian ’19, Edgar Warnholtz ’19
 Katz, B. & Brandt, J. (2017). The refugee crisis is a city crisis. Brookings Institution. Retrieved from https://www.brookings.edu/blog/metropolitan-revolution/2017/11/03/the-refugee-crisis-is-a-city-crisis/
 McBrien, J. (2005). Educational needs and barriers for refugee students in the United States: A review of the literature. Review of Educational Research, 75(3), 329-364. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/3515985
 Mendenhall, M., Russell, S. G., & Buckner, E. (2017). Urban refugee education: Strengthening policies and practices for access, quality and inclusion. Teachers College Columbia University. Retrieved from https://www.tc.columbia.edu/refugeeeducation/resources/Urban-Refugees-Full-Report.pdf