EL CAJON, Calif (KGTV) - The Cajon Valley Union School District has found a unique tool to help them teach thousands of refugee students, many of whom don't speak English.
They're using soccer.
"The kids were exhausted after six hours of academics every day," says District Director of Community Engagement Michael Serban. "Time after school can be spent differently."
Three days a week, English-learning refugee students take part in the Power Up program . They spend 45 minutes playing soccer, using the game to introduce words and concepts. They spend another 45 minutes in class working what they heard on the pitch.
"You can see the growth in the students' vocabulary," says Serban. "When they go back in the classroom, they're not just listening. They're using the words that they practiced to increase the basic foundational vocabulary."
The program is only in its second year at Cajon Valley, but the problem of working with refugees spans decades.
Since 1975, San Diego County has brought in 86,598 refugees. That's third-most in the state. Many of them settle in East County, where their children enroll in local schools.
"A lot of the students coming to us from refugee camps may not have been in school," explains Superintendent Dr. David Miyashiro. "They're coming to us in 7th or 8th grade with very low English language skills and also with literacy issues in their own language."
Serban says families had been asking for a soccer program to help the kids adapt. The district teamed up with Sports for Learning to develop the curriculum.
In addition to the soccer and vocabulary, the students get social and emotional counseling to help them cope with the trauma from their home country. It also teaches them the social norms of being in an American school.
A few non-refugee students also participate in the class, to make sure the students make friends outside of the refugee community.
The district also is a pioneer in helping all of its students learn about careers and options after school. They use the World of Work curriculum to help gauge the kids' interest and aptitude in a variety of career fields.
That program helps the refugee students feel like they have a long-term future in America.
"Before we ask kids to learn to read, we have to show them why they need to learn to read," says Dr. Miyashiro. "These curricula bring relevance to their learning and connectivity to their future."
The Power Up program is funded, in part, through a grant from the Refugee School Impact Program as part of the US Department of Health and Human Services.