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The Academic Engagement of Newly Arriving Somali Bantu Students in a U.S. Elementary School
October 2015

The Academic Engagement of Newly Arriving Somali Bantu Students in a U.S. Elementary School

This report examines the findings of a two-year ethnographic study of newly arrived Somali Bantu refugee students in a U.S. elementary school (K-6) in Chicago. The Somali Bantu had been displaced in refugee camps for more than 12 years, and the children had no prior exposure to formal schooling and limited literacy skills. Upon their resettlement, a number of school districts voiced concerns about meeting the mental health and social adjustment needs of Somali Bantu students and questioned whether local schools were equipped with suitable teaching strategies. The authors led a research team that carried out observations of select classrooms and interviews with school staff over a two-year period, before coding the resulting field notes to identify key themes and patterns.

These data paint a detailed picture of students’ behavioral and academic adjustment to school, which included disruptive behavior, refusal to participate in the learning process, hoarding of classroom materials, and expressions of distress. It also outlines teachers' experiences with the children, who found working with the Somali Bantu children particularly challenging, and often reported feeling ill equipped to cope with their academic and behavioral issues.

This study illustrates the difficulties faced by refugee students with limited formal education (LFE) when adjusting to U.S. schools, and the pressures placed on teachers and other school staff. These findings, published for the first time in this report, extend the literature on the academic engagement of immigrants to this group of LFE refugee students. Many studies that focus on behavioral, cognitive, and personal engagement and their interconnections attribute disengagement to a lack of interest and suggest that behavioral incidents are the product of this disengagement. However, in this study, LFE refugee students were disengaged not because of lack of interest but because they were unfamiliar with the culture of schooling. This study also illustrates the need to provide schools with adequate support to successfully accommodate the needs of LFE refugee students.

Table of Contents 

I. Introduction

II. The Somali Bantu Refugees

III. Methods

A. The Sample

B. The School

C. Data Analysis

D. Theoretical Framework and Key Concepts

E. Study Limitations

IV. Findings: The Students

A. Behavioral Incidents

B. Engagement and Disengagment in Learning

V. Findings: The Teachers

A. Challenges Presented by the Bantu Students

B. Teacher Attitudes

C. Strategies for Teaching Bantu Students

VI. Discussion and Conclusions

A. Implications for Refugees' Academic Engagement

B. The Politics of Accommodation