Damakant Jayshi

A language and literacy expert emphasized on Wednesday the need to impart English language skills for non-English speakers, as resettlement plans for refugees continue in Wausau.

Refugees need language skills for practical purposes and not just English grammar, vocabulary and punctuation, said Nell Anderson, who retired after serving as Wausau School District’s Director of Education and English as a Second Language (ESL). Anderson addressed the City of Wausau’s Liberation and Freedom Committee on Wednesday on the topic of language needs and barriers of refugees.

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She shared an anecdote with one of her first Hmong students with limited English years ago. “‘Mrs. Anderson…I am learning more English at my job sweeping the floors at Kmart at night’, he said,” Anderson told the committee members. “He wanted practical language so that he could speak to his co-workers and to get more jobs in the community.”

That same principle applies to refugees from Afghanistan about to be resettled in Wausau as part of the new resettlement plan approved by the federal government, said Anderson, who has taught English as second language at local, national and international levels.

Responding to committee member Bee Her about whether Afghans could have communication support in their native languages (Dari and Pashto), Anderson said she was not sure whether Wausau had any interpreters to fill that need. Mobile phones could help translate, she said. 

Mayor Katie Rosenberg said city officials have discussed the language barrier with the ECDC (Ethiopian Community Development Council) and some other people.

“They actually have innovative ways to find native speakers that help them translate,” she said. “That’s something the city, in general, would like to look into how we can participate in those kinds of programs.”

ECDC, one of nine national refugee resettlement agencies, is spearheading efforts to resettle refugees in Wausau and elsewhere. 

Under the program approved in September, 10 people are likely to be resettled in the city by the end of the year.

Area schools, meanwhile, are expecting to see new arrivals in the middle of the academic year. Both Wausau School District and D.C. Everest Area School District officials told Wausau Pilot & Review that they will “absolutely admit” the newcomers.

“We will welcome the new students,” said Kelly Thompson, PhD, Director of Curriculum, Literacy, Assessment and EL. “We want to celebrate the extra strength that these students bring and students in the school can learn from diverse culture.”

Dr. Thompson said D.C. Everest is prepared to meet language needs of those with limited or no English. She said there are ESL teachers at all levels in the district who will work with classroom teachers to help the newcomers. Additional support, like student counseling, is also available.

Similarly, the Wausau School District is gearing up to meet the new students’ needs, said Diana White, Coordinator of Communications and Marketing.

White said that Christopher Nyman, Director of Learning and Student Achievement at the WSD has been in touch with Adam VanNoord, director of the Multicultural Community Center, the ECDC branch in the city.

“The ECDC is planning to welcome their first family in early December but we are waiting for confirmation if the family has school-age children,” White said. “If so, students will need to be registered in their ‘homeschool’ 30 days after arriving.” 

The WSD will create language support plans based on individual student needs,” she added.

Damakant Jayshi is a reporter for Wausau Pilot & Review. He is also a corps member with Report for America, an initiative of GroundTruth Project that places journalists into local newsrooms. Reach him at damakant@wausaupilotandreview.com.