Over the last 12 months, Nataliia Mostova has gone from teaching in Dnipro, Ukraine, to working in a hotel in Bulgaria, to now serving as a paraprofessional at Jardine Elementary School in Topeka, Kan., where she’s helping young Ukrainian refugees get used a new life and school halfway around the world.
A year after Russia invaded Ukraine and displaced millions of Ukrainians, Mostova and her daughter, Mariia, a 4th grader at Jardine Elementary, and her son, Bohdan, who’s enrolled in kindergarten, feel safe in their new home.
But she is still often gripped with worry for her grandfather, who is still in Ukraine, and her husband Andrii, who is serving in the military. Her heart “is always aching for them [and] for the country,” Mostova said through a translator.
Mostova is one of eight adult refugees—most of them parents or relatives of Ukrainian children—who work in Topeka public schools, part of a concerted district effort to hire the family members of refugee students as employees and volunteers to help ease them into life in a new country. It’s also a way to help families gain financial stability and begin planning for the future.
Through early February, nearly 30 Ukrainian students had enrolled in the district, from kindergarten through high school. Their family members work as paraprofessionals, in food services, and in custodial services, according to the district.
“Economic stability and prosperity [are] a right—it’s not a gift,” said Tiffany Anderson, the superintendent. “It’s something that we all should see as a right that we all should be able to have as human beings. We should all be able to live and prosper.”
Expanding student and family supports
When Topeka created a new director of cultural innovation position last summer, Anderson and her team weren’t sure how the district would help meet the needs of students it hadn’t previously served in large numbers. Only five Ukrainian students had enrolled at the time, and the district did not have a Ukrainian- or Russian-speaking teacher on staff.
But the district already had a newcomer program, and Spanish is the primary second language in the district. Luckily, Anderson said, about 15 years ago the school system had a Ukrainian foreign exchange program, and it was able to get a retired Russian teacher to help out.
Compassion is the most important value for me as a refugee.
After connecting with Yana Ross, a risk manager who is leading the volunteer refugee taskforce in Topeka, the district realized it needed to create more supports to help students and their families gain a foothold.
One of the things it did was create a feeder pattern for Ukrainian students. The district’s newcomer program, for newly arrived immigrant students, is located at Jardine Middle School, so it made the decision to enroll all incoming Ukrainian elementary students at Jardine Elementary, the feeder school attached to the middle school. High school students would go to Topeka High School, where the dual-language program is based.
The feeder pattern allowed the district to use a single bus to pick up and drop off Ukrainian students—including high schoolers, who aren’t normally bused—so that students would also have a chance to socialize on their way to school. It also minimized the possibility that there would be only one Ukrainian student in a building, Anderson said.
“We knew that those schools could certainly sustain those families,” Anderson said. “That meant our social workers, our nurses, all of our staff members that were already present in [those] schools could wrap services around in a concentrated way, at that particular building.”
The feeder pattern also helped Ross to concentrate house hunting for refugee families near the schools, Anderson said.
Technology expansion during the pandemic, which made it easier for districts to provide hotspots and laptops to students, also allowed families to connect to their loved ones in Ukraine as soon as they settled.
“It was a huge, huge blessing,” Ross said.
Pilar Mejía, the director of cultural innovation, has served as a kind of liaison to families, helping to connect them with mental health supports and bus passes.
“We do that for every family,” Anderson said, but “when you come from Ukraine, you don’t know what you don’t know. You don’t even know what to ask for. We just took a step back to say, ‘What are all the components that a person is going to need in order to go grocery shopping to get their child to school?’ And then wrapping those services around [them].”
The district initially started offering volunteer positions to family members because “we presumed that it would be scary in a new place to not see your family,” Anderson said.
(Until late last year, when Ukrainian refugees were allowed to start working immediately upon resettlement, there were long waits for work permits.)
Mejía’s job took on a human resources component, with periodic surveys of families about their skills, previous jobs, and interests.
“All these people who have arrived are highly intelligent, skilled, and educated,” Mejía said. “So that transition to a new country [into] jobs that might look very different from what they had before but that offer stability and dignity for their family has been also critical.”
“In our employment efforts, we are an all-inclusive district,” she said. “We want to make sure that language does not represent a barrier for anyone to be able to feel self-sufficient and stand on their own feet.”
Starting a new life
Mostova started working as a kindergarten paraprofessional in the English language learning department just before Christmas. While she provides translation services and in-class support for Ukrainian students, she also gets the opportunity to improve her English.
She has a teaching degree and had spent several months in Bulgaria and Poland, before Ross found a sponsor for the family, which included Mostova’s aunt.
“The change that she’s already had, the impact she’s already had on 18 Ukrainian scholars is palpable,” Mejía said. “They are so happy she is here; she is pushing into their classrooms for support. She is pulling them out and helping them with their English lessons, their math lessons, their English language arts lessons. The teachers love her.”
Valeriia Babiichuk, who fled Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, the first day of the war, was surprised at the support she received when she arrived in Topeka last summer.
Babiichuk, her husband, Oleksandr, and son, Zakhar, flew first to Poland, then moved to Spain where Zakhar started learning Spanish and going to school for the first time.
They moved to Texas in July, but their housing arrangement fell through after two weeks, and Babiichuk found herself on the internet looking for another place to live.
“It was the hardest part for all of us,” she said. “I was just trying to find somebody to help us.”
That’s when she came across Ross and Nova Ukraine, a nonprofit humanitarian agency that helps with resettlement. She was able to enroll Zakhar in school the day after arriving in Topeka.
“I am really shocked by the stuff that people here organized for us,” said Babiichuk, who called Ross her angel. “We are grateful to people—to community, to school, to every, every person that takes care of us. It’s just amazing. It’s unbelievable. We appreciate it so much.”
Babiichuk, who speaks several languages—including English, Spanish, and German—volunteers occasionally as needed.
“I was thinking about how I can be helpful?” she said. “What should I do in order to feel happy? For me, it’s really important for me to do something that is helpful for the society, helpful for the community, something that I like to do, and something that I’m good at.”
Babiichuk has been frustrated that she’d been unable to work until recently. In the interim, she completed a course in applied behavior analysis to work with special needs children.
Ross, the volunteer, said it’s especially difficult for those still learning English to find jobs.
The district has been “very, very helpful with connecting those dots and finding jobs they can feel good about, and that they can [use to] provide for their families,” Ross said, “so they are able to bring [home] income, feel like they actually belong to this community, and they are not just having to rely on other people for support.”
Supporting students and families
Babiichuk’s son, Zakhar, is excited about his new school, she said.
“He is asking me all the time, on Fridays ... ‘Mom, am I going to school tomorrow?’ I said, ‘No, it’s Saturday.’” His response? “ ‘Oh, no,’ ” she said.
Mariia, the 4th grader, said through a translator that she loves school, especially math. She’d been taking classes online since the start of the war and was initially afraid of returning to school, her mother said.
But teachers helped her, and on the first day she met another student from Ukraine. Mejía also introduced her to two 5th graders from her home country.
Teachers, she said, respect her and help with translation. But she also loves that she gets the time to play.
“It’s all about playing,” said Babiichuk, who was translating for Mariia. “She likes to play, learn through play. She likes the process in general.”
Mostova added that she appreciates that the district is helping students maintain their identity. When students are watching a movie, for example, the teacher may ask if they want to do so in Ukrainian or English. Sometimes, even native English speakers opt to watch the movies in Ukrainian because of Mariia’s presence.
“Such a respect, such a support for us—it’s amazing,” Mostova said.
Hiring parents has been good for students and their family members as well as the school district.
Mostova, for example, can see Mariia during the day, and she doesn’t have to worry about child care because she doesn’t have to go to work when Mariia is off from school.
“It’s allowing young people to flourish, who previously were doing OK,” Anderson said. “But they were Ukrainians, and they didn’t have a lot of friends, and they didn’t have other adults in their spaces that connected [to] their story. So it’s benefiting us.”
District staff said they are learning as much from the families and students as the students and families are learning from them. Teachers who are used to teaching students in English and Spanish are now translating into a third and fourth language to accommodate students, said Paula Reilly, the assistant principal at Topeka High School.
Still, there’s a kind of uncertainty that hovers over refugees that makes it hard to think about the future.
Sofia Kravchenko, 17, a sophomore at Topeka High School, wanted to work in theater arts before the war. Now, she’s unsure because the future of Ukraine is so uncertain.
She left Ukraine in November with her mother, stepfather, and three younger brothers. But she also had to leave behind her 20-year-old brother, who is old enough to serve in the military.
She likes her new school and photography, but doesn’t quite feel settled. It comforts her that there are other Ukrainian students at the high school, and native English speakers have been using translation apps on their phones to work with her, she said.
The uncertainty is a common sentiment, especially for teenagers, who would have been preparing for college if they were back in Ukraine, Ross said.
“I think if those older kids would be given an opportunity to continue their education, they would probably feel more secure and better about themselves and their future,” Ross said. “We’ll hope for the best.”
Mejía said Sofia is doing well, but language acquisition can take seven to 10 years, and the district only has high schoolers for, at most, four years.
Most of the incoming refugee students, Mejía said, are at the emerging level, and some may be able to hold a regular conversation, but not a content-specific one.
But there are a host of supports for students, she said. They have access to sheltered classes in all content areas, which are presented in ways that would be more comprehensible to them. Teachers who do not teach English learners, but who hold ESOL [English to Speakers of Other Languages] endorsements know about language acquisition theory and practices and include those techniques in their lessons. Plus, Mejía said, students are immersed in the language and culture and technology can be a big help.
“The continuum of support that we have is pretty extensive,” Mejía said. “We anticipate that their proficiency rates will skyrocket.”
Compassion and gratitude
It’s been a “kind of a roller coaster” year, Babiichuk said.
“One day you feel not bad, happy, you’re safe, you’re in a good place to be, everybody supports you,” she said. “But then the other day, you just fall apart.”
But she feels a lot better now that she can use her skills to contribute to her new community.
“It’s really huge,” she said. “It’s important [that] you feel safe, and you feel loved. This is something that keeps us going. Every day, I wake up and I just feel grateful. Grateful. Just gratefulness to people that’s around us in school.”
But they’re still concerned about those left behind. Babiichuk couldn’t enjoy the holidays because she’d been unable to reach her parents who are still in Kiev because electricity and internet were disrupted by bombings.
Babiichuk’s parents are fine now, but Mejía said the fear was palpable when Babiichuk couldn’t find them.
Babiichuk remains thankful for the support she and her family has received.
“If somebody asks me what’s the most important word of this year or last year, I would say ‘compassion,’ ” she said. “Compassion is the most important value for me as a refugee.”
A version of this article appeared in the March 08, 2023 edition of Education Week as The School District That’s Enrolling Ukrainian Refugees—and Hiring Their Parents