Nara, a seventh-grader at Granite Park Junior High, stands excitedly with her peers beside a rocket launcher, counting down the seconds. Her instructor describes the effect of air pressure on the distance the rocket will travel. As the rocket launches from the ground, the students look up with excitement and fascination, watching as it flies through the air. Nara is an aspiring aerospace engineer. But, unlike many of her peers, she struggles with the challenge of learning English and getting used to a new culture in the United States. The after-school program she attends five days a week helps her as she adapts to public school in Utah.
Granite Park Junior High hosts one of the 14 after-school programs offered through Promise South Salt Lake, a city department dedicated to improving educational opportunities for children living in South Salt Lake. Promise is financially vulnerable because it is funded almost entirely through donations and grants. It almost lost funding this year when the Trump administration proposed eliminating the 21st Century Community Learning Center grant, the mainstay federal funding grant dedicated exclusively to after-school and summer learning programs. This grant will be up for elimination again next year.
Of the students that utilize these free after-school programs, 82 percent are minorities, which includes immigrants and refugees. These students rely heavily on Promise South Salt Lake, which provides the community with resources addressing health issues and basic needs, as well as tutoring and enrichment opportunities.
Promise South Salt Lake programs are almost entirely dependent on partnerships with businesses, as well as faith-based, educational and community organizations, and rely on more than 2,000 volunteers to operate. As a result, the initiative is in constant need of resources and volunteers to provide enriching academic experiences for students in South Salt Lake. Utahns want our state to be a safe place where refugees can live and flourish. One of the best ways to serve refugees in our community is to donate time or money to after-school programs.
As the daughter of refugee and immigrant parents, and as an employee of Promise South Salt Lake for over three years, I understand the difficulty of building a new life in a new country and how necessary Promise is to the community and to refugee families. I see how many barriers refugee children face in school, including a lack of resources and translation services, unfamiliarity with the U.S. education system and little to no experience with English. Many recently school-integrated children have insufficient educational credit hours, hindering their ability to graduate on time. Additionally, some students have undergone traumatic experiences that result in them exhibiting anti-social behavior and post-traumatic stress disorder, further complicating integration into daily school activities.
Another common problem affecting refugee and immigrant communities is gang influence.
According to the Promise South Salt Lake Needs Assessment and Segment Analysis, South Salt Lake has double the average statewide youth gang involvement. Gang involvement leads to increased drug use, gun violence and safety concerns for communities throughout Utah. Recently, South Salt Lake has noticed a disturbing trend of gang recruiters targeting vulnerable young students in elementary and junior high schools.
Programs like Promise South Salt Lake provide students with the resources and care every child deserves. There are children who want to receive homework help, to be a part of a basketball team and to attend STEM programming to learn the mechanics behind a rocket launch. For immigrant and refugee students, after-school programs become a safe haven, an environment for meaningful relationships and a place to celebrate diversity.
Students adjusting to school in the U.S. need and deserve our support. These children are our future, and investing in them is investing in the success of our community. You can help them by offering your help at after-school programs, which expand educational opportunities and facilitate relationships with peers and mentors. You can donate money or needed materials to these programs — or, most importantly, you can volunteer. For students like Nara, these programs can make all the difference in helping them succeed both inside and outside the classroom.
Op-ed by Alliance for a Better Utah intern Teresa Bagdasarova appeared in the Deseret News here.