In terms of geography and culture, Twin Falls can scarcely be farther removed from Afghanistan or Iran, Burma or Nepal.
Yet in schools such as Twin Falls’ Lincoln Elementary School, in a portable building abutting a blacktop playground, newly arrived refugee students begin their long and stark transition to American schools.
Refugee resettlement is no longer an emotional yet faraway topic in Twin Falls. But that’s been true for a generation. The first refugee students began arriving in the mid-1980s, mostly from Southeast Asia. Nonetheless, in recent months, the city’s residents were asked to weigh that 30-year experience against a campaign that declared refugee resettlement a costly security risk.
Idaho’s refugee education programs are small and scattered. But now, more than ever, their future rests with a debate over national security and terrorism.
The State Department of Education does not have hard figures on refugee students. Districts aren’t required to determine whether students are refugees, and some registrars simply don’t ask.
“It’s really a touchy subject,” said Christina Nava, the department’s English learners and migrant director.
The state does track immigrant students, a group that includes but is not limited to refugees. In 2015-16, 2,692 immigrant students attended Idaho schools — slightly less than 1 percent of the state’s overall student enrollment.
It’s also unclear how Idaho immigrant and refugee students perform in school. The state is not required to report this data as part of its Title I “report card” to the federal government.
In Twin Falls, home to a thriving refugee student program for three decades, immigrant and refugees have graduated at a 93 percent rate over the past six years. By comparison, the district’s overall 2014-15 graduation rate was 80 percent, and the statewide graduation rate was 79 percent.