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LeagueTLC Innovation Express
Exploring Issues, Innovations, and New Developments with Information Technology Professionals

Maricopa Skill Center Refugee Targeted Assistance Program 

Maricopa County Community College District


"…Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door."

-Emma Lazarus, "The New Colossus" (1883)

Unexpectedly, in the deep of night, a bone-chilling story begins to play through the mind of Ratib Nasic. A young family is brutally taken captive by soldiers. As they are led away, their neat, two-story brick home on a flower-covered bank explodes into flames. 

The mental image is a reality—and it is scored forever into Ratib's mind. Ratib recalls the day in 1992 when he lost his job as a government lawyer. Ratib, his wife Amina, and their 8-year old son were taken to a Serbian prisoner of war camp where they were forced to separate. "It was like Auschwitz. About 250 people were gassed to death; survivors were forced to go four or five days without food or water," recalls Ratib, of the excruciating seven months. 

Like so many other refugees before them, the Nasic family was eventually able to come to America. They landed in Phoenix with a few suitcases, personal cargo full of horror stories, and a hopeful dream of freedom and safety. In a war-torn world, America remains the beacon of liberty. 

The Refugee Targeted Assistance Program
Each year, the United States opens its doors to thousands of refugees for permanent resettlement in this country. Established in 1980 and under the Department of Health and Human Services, the goal of the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) is to provide assistance to help refugees achieve economic self-sufficiency and social adjustment within the shortest time possible following arrival to the U.S. The ORR provides millions of dollars in targeted assistance funds to supplement available services in areas with large concentrations of refugees and entrants.

In 1997, the Arizona Department of Economic Security/Community Service Administration noticed a major increase in the number of refugees arriving in Arizona, with significant increases in arrivals from Bosnia and Kosovo as well as from many African countries including Sierra Leone, Sudan, and Somalia, representing a more diverse population than seen in previous decades.

For the new arrivals, significant barriers to employment exist, even for those who previously held professional careers in their own countries. In 1997, the Arizona Department of Economic Security joined with the Maricopa Skill Center (MSC) and other community agencies to create the Refugee Targeted Assistance Program (RTAP), a division of Gateway Community College. Aware of federal regulations requiring heads of refugee households to be employed within six months of their resettlement in the United Sates, the RTAP at MSC focused on secondary and tertiary wage earners with a simple mission: To help refugees become self-supporting as soon as possible through career and technical training, thus leading them to gainful employment with benefits. 

Researching established refugee programs in other states and federal accountability measures, MSC leadership had seen other refugee targeted assistance programs fail because they addressed only designated professional needs or projected numbers and didn't become involved in the overall complexity of the refugees' lives. From data review of other states' refugee assistance services, MSC leadership found secondary and tertiary eligible participants were typically stay-at-home mothers, and so the concept of free tuition, childcare, and transportation were high considerations as service functions in program establishment. From this, RTAP was conceived as an all-encompassing program to extend a variety of professional and personal services in order to build and achieve success as quickly as possible in the lives of new refugees. The RTAP seven-month schedule is built around a core of program components and participant services:

  • Skills training

  • English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL)

  • Child care

  • Transportation

  • Individual case management

  • Refugee Life Skills

As a miniature United Nations in Arizona, the RTAP may include students from 30 countries, speaking over 26 languages at one time. There are no educational requirements to enroll in MSC, but students must be at least 16 years old. Students may choose among 150 different occupational certificates, start training at their level of knowledge, and graduate once they have mastered the skills required for their certificate. New students are accepted the first class day of the week, 48 weeks a year. Graduations are held the last class day of the week, usually on Friday. Students are eligible to graduate once they have completed the competencies for the desired certificate. The MSC open-entry, open-exit, self-paced training formula has been replicated around the world. 

In order to overcome the language barrier, RTAP students begin their training by attending ESOL classes until proficient enough to benefit from the skill training. Most of them continue taking language classes until their English skills are no longer a barrier to employment.

Each program cluster is competency based and stair stepped so that students are able to move easily into the next level. Each of MSC's programs have multiple exit points that lead to employment in the current job market, so students of varying abilities or with limited time can achieve success. Students know from the beginning exactly what skills are needed to obtain their certificate of completion and are able to progress at their own pace. Students start at their own level, whether it is beginning, intermediate, or advanced, and are encouraged to give the program enough time to learn the competencies for certificates at the highest level. The average length of time it takes students in all programs to earn the highest certificate is about six months. RTAP grant funds permit courses of study of six months, so if a student is unable to complete the program within that time frame, other monies are found to pay for the last months of training. At graduation, students receive the certificate equal to the highest competencies mastered. Realizing that the best jobs go to those with the highest-level certificates, the majority of students work toward and achieve the more advanced program competencies.

Students come in with their own personal goals, most commonly to get a good or better job. Others may come for personal enrichment. Instructors meet with students individually to discuss their goals and to make sure the program can accommodate them. While most students follow the prescribed competencies for their certificate, instructors may design a "special project" certificate that incorporates students' needs, such as upgrade training. For example, a machinist may want upgrade training in order to operate a computer numerical control (CNC) machine. Incumbent worker training is an area that MSC hopes to expand, ideally with fees paid by employers.

Individualized Case Management System
In RTAP, there are no counselors of the traditional variety. Instead, there is intensive caseworker support provided by Catholic Social Services of Phoenix. Two of the three RTAP caseworkers, one Vietnamese and one Somalian are former refugees themselves and spread the word about RTAP through contacts at refugee apartment complexes, churches, and refugee organizations. Caseworkers cite many challenges refugees may face such as loss of food stamps and welfare, prejudice in the workplace, homesickness, cultural barriers, and communication issues. These caseworkers are able to draw on their own experiences to counsel refugees through this transition, serving as examples of people who have succeeded; they are able to empathize with the refugees' fears and frustrations as they begin a new life in America.

Caseworkers work with the refugees to set up transportation and childcare, monitor their educational progress, and help refugee students with problems they might encounter in what can be overwhelming and compounding transition situations. Caseworkers bring potential students to MSC for a tour and serve as guides from program orientation through to completion. Refugees who do not qualify for RTAP are immediately urged to apply for a Pell Grant or other sources of financial aid. The caseworkers help students choose career clusters and are also responsible for taking students to job referrals provided by instructors. It is clear that MSC-RTAP caseworkers serve an important role from entry to exit in the progress of the refugees. 

Innovative Hiring and Staff Development Practice
MSC instructors are hired for their work experience in business and industry, not on academic credentials alone; seven or more years of experience in their industry are expected. Instructors feel a deep and personal stake in student success. They offer individual coaching, motivation, and, sometimes, tough love. As a result, rapport with students is very strong. 

In order to maintain their contacts with business and industry and keep abreast of current trends, instructors participate in various professional development activities. Instructors are members of industry associations and participate in various association activities. For instance, the American Welding Society has met at MSC; and the Arizona Tooling and Machining Association meets approximately once a year at the center. MSC hosts meetings, serves on committees, and works together at career and job fairs with industry associations.

Every faculty member is encouraged to attend six seminars per year for professional growth. Also, instructors spend at least one day in industry every year, visit area employers, and take advantage of upgrade training in their field. In addition, MSC gives instructors one hour of planning time in their daily schedule and holds an annual off-site training day for all staff.

Because so many refugees speak English as a second language, language and cultural differences offer a challenge to the faculty. Instructors hire previous refugee students as classroom aides in order to provide translation, moral support, and tutoring for the students. Instructors are very sensitive to cultural differences, and deal with students carefully and respectfully. 

Distinctive MultiCultural Atmosphere 
For business as well as humanitarian reasons, MSC does not believe in turning anyone away. MSC students quickly understand that tolerance and respect are expected of everyone. Students from 76 countries, speaking over 30 languages, have blended into the MSC culture. The hallways and classrooms comprise a rich cultural brew, and diversity, gender, and religious beliefs are respected by staff and students. 

MSC's deep commitment to cultural sensitivity is exemplified in this recent scenario: During the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, Muslim students are required to pray four times daily. Their commitment to their training programs was a potential barrier to fulfilling their religious ritual of prayer. In order to allow Muslim students to pray during the day, staff set aside rooms for quiet reflection. 

Because MSC is so diverse, students are paired with peers who are a little more advanced in the program. These peer mentoring relationships help overcome the language barrier as the peer mentor provides translation and supports students as they make the transition into American life and their training programs. 

Furthermore, most refugees are not accustomed to American lifestyles, the MSC-RTAP program introduced a one-week Refugee Life Skills Class for women, taught in the refugees' native language. America's huge warehouse stores, area malls, and supermarkets intimidate many refugees, and they are not accustomed to American hygiene practices, credit-card use, time management, or workplace expectations. The one-week course covers such essentials, and, as a finale, the class takes a field trip to the largest shopping mall in Arizona and ends with a potluck luncheon of participants' native foods. In February 2003, by request, a similar class was offered to male refugees. 

Collaboration With Local Business and Industry 
MSC has over 50 Business and Industry partners with whom they coordinate job-search activities. Many of these are supporters or sponsors of specific programs. Staff at MSC work closely with industry leaders to stay apprised of workforce needs. Each program cluster faculty meets at least twice a year with its own Business/Industry Advisory Board. The main purpose of advisory groups is to identify what students need to succeed in each area. In addition, instructors are asked to spend a day per year in industry for updates on the latest trends and issues. 

Instructors are continually obtaining feedback from business partners in order to make changes to the curriculum within their own career clusters that make them more effective and responsive to the needs of students and industry. Instructors initiate contact with business partners or, more commonly, business partners call instructors to offer advice on the direction of the program. As a result of this type of feedback, additional certificates for medical assistance and A+ programming were created.

Collaboration With Social Services
Students are provided wrap-around services, and MSC leadership believes program partnerships and services to be the biggest factor in the success of RTAP. Several local agencies work together with MSC and extend noted services for the benefit of the refugees:

  • Arizona Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) provides federal funding for tuition. 

  • American Red Cross provides transportation to the Skill Center for training. 

  • Catholic Social Services of Phoenix (CSSP) handles recruitment, day care, and case management.

In addition, through networked local agencies, refugees are offered assistance in securing appropriate and affordable housing. RTAP participants are provided free child care at more than 36 sites and approximately 3,500 miles per week in transportation to and from MSC. MSC has partnerships linking it to over 50 civic, community, and cultural organizations throughout Maricopa County. For example, there is a memorandum of agreement between MSC, Maricopa County, and the City of Phoenix to produce four job fairs a year. MSC has a partnership, now almost 22 years old, with Rio Salado Community College to provide ESOL, basic skills, and GED preparation training at MSC as a free service to the community. Refugee community leaders meet monthly and provide feedback directly to the state and to MSC on ideas to improve the program.

Evaluation Plan and Program Outcomes

Our real focus is HIRE education, which stands for Helping Individuals Reach Employment. 
—Stan Grossman, Executive Director, Maricopa Skills Center

Since its inception in 1999, the award-winning Maricopa Skill Center Refugee Targeted Assistance Program to date has served 810 refugees. In 1999, the RTAP won the Maricopa Community College District Innovation of the Year Award, and in 2001 received one of two Exemplary Designations from the National Center for Career and Technical Education. 

Following a six-month course of training, 90 percent of RTAP graduates are working in jobs within 30 days of graduation, almost all of them in areas for which they were trained. The indicators of success and program outcomes to date are remarkable:

  • Graduates of the MSC-RTAP earn $2 more per hour than refugees anywhere else in the country.

  • Ninety percent of RTAP graduates get jobs.

  • Refugees from almost 30 countries peacefully blend with over 70 nationalities on campus.

  • Caseworkers who are former refugees coordinate housing, child care, transportation, and training; in addition, they serve as role models and coaches.

  • The Skill Center focuses on competency-based, self-paced curriculum.

  • Program funds are leveraged: students who qualify for and receive Pell grants free up RTAP funds for more refugee participants.

The program has exceeded the state's performance measures each year. The standard target of a 70 percent completion rate has been surpassed each year, with RTAP students achieving a 95 percent completion rate. As a result, the program has not only been re-funded yearly, but has received a significant increase of funds each year based on having exceeded the performance standards.

Summary and Lessons Learned
As standards of replication and development, the MSC-RTAP team offer the following insights and considerations for establishing high quality training and learning services combined with personal outreach for those seeking safe harbor. 

  • Planning—Local area agencies spent three years developing the MSC-RTAP program.

  • Communication—In spite of all the planning, early days of the program found frustrations for students and staff due to language challenges. One solution: dual-language dictionaries given to each student, and one dual-language dictionary for every language spoken in the classroom.

  • Collaboration—Emphasize clear and flexible working relationships with cooperating agencies. RTAP agencies continue to meet once a month to work out problems and keep the program running smoothly.

  • Childcare—In best cases, RTAP seeks care givers who speak the native language of the children. In addition, time and money are saved if the child care facility is between the homes of the students and the school, rather than in a counter directions.

  • On-site ESOL Classes—These critical classes as a first step offer students a basic start, and then continue to build on language acquisition as they engage in skills training.

  • High Quality Faculty—MSC-RTAP instructors have direct relationships with employers. MSC instructors are adept at matching students to available jobs through their professional contacts and networks.

Although the many functions of the MSC-RTAP are process and outcomes based, the pride of the MSC-RTAP is found in the many faces of the students, faculty, and staff. The idea of offering refuge and safety in a tumultuous world is the foundation of American legacy and liberty. As emphasized in the opening quote of Emma Lazarus, most of the RTAP students come to America for "peace", and at the MSC-RTAP they find peace and opportunity. 

For more information, contact:
Barbara Lacy
Marketing Director 
Maricopa Skill Center 
Maricopa County Community College District


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