NEW YORK – For their first fire drill, students at the Refugee Youth Summer Academy trooped out of the building behind their teachers. All that was missing were the sirens.
The blaring alarms had been muted, for fear they could trigger terror in children who recently arrived from war zones and other conflict areas. The silent fire drill was part of the balancing act for staff at the six-week program that helps youngsters who have survived wars and refugee camps prepare for a new experience — American public school.
For some of the kids, formal education has been haphazard or nonexistent, said Elizabeth Demchak, principal of the school, run by the International Rescue Committee, which works with refugees and asylum-seekers.
For others, school consisted of sitting and taking notes surrounded by dozens of others with a teacher reciting a lecture. Preparing them means helping them learn how to go to school along with what they learn there.
"When they enter the classroom in September, things won't be so new for them, and having taken away that freshness, that newness, you're also taking away that fear," Demchak said.
That's where something like the fire drill comes in. Running a drill, explaining what it is, can help keep students from reacting negatively when they experience it in school.
"If a child has lived in an environment, especially in a conflict area, where they're accustomed to hearing sirens and sirens are a signal for an emergency ... when they hear an alarm going off in their school it may trigger a certain memory, it may make them act in a certain way," Demchak said.
"We're teaching them how to disassociate certain triggers that had a negative connotation with things that are here to help and protect them," she said.
The Youth Academy program has about 120 kids this summer who will be in kindergarten to 12th grade this school year. The students' homelands are a litany of the world's hot spots, combat zones and conflict areas: Iraq. Afghanistan. Sierra Leone. Burma.
Most have been here for less than 18 months. Some will be starting school in America for the first time.
In the program, the children work on their English, writing and math. They take art, dance and music. They go on field trips.
From the length of the day to changing rooms between classes to raising their hands and interacting with teachers, the program tries to mimic what students will experience.
That was a blessing for Helen Samuels, 17, who attended two years ago and works there this summer.
Half Burmese and half Thai, she hadn't been in school for two years when she arrived here in June 2008 from the refugee camps along the Burma-Thailand border.
She was a frightened girl and the program helped reassure her.
"We had to learn all the basics of how to be a student, starting from you had to come to class on time," Samuels said. "It helped me, to prepare me to see school is not something scary."
Among those starting this fall is Basserou Kaba, a 16-year-old from Ivory Coast, an African nation divided between government and rebel forces.
The teen, who was in 12th grade before coming here in April, will start in 10th grade to improve his English.
He is happy that U.S. teachers expect students to ask questions, unlike those in his homeland.
"In my country, the teacher teach what he wants," Kaba said. "You don't understand, it's your problem."
Kaba admits he's a little nervous about his language skills but says he's now comfortable with the idea of going to school.
"In this program, I came to know what is the school in U.S.," he said.
The IRC program and others like it can play a vital role in helping them build their lives in a new country, said Michele Pistone, a law professor at Villanova University School of Law who specializes in refugee issues.
New arrivals can benefit from being taught such common practices for Americans, she said, as parental involvement in a child's education.
"In the United States, our system, there's much more interaction between parents and teachers than there is elsewhere around the world," Pistone said. "A lot of the refugees I've worked with — because they're coming from an environment where there isn't that expectation of involvement — they tend not to be."
The IRC program, which ends Friday, holds parent-teacher conferences and encourages parents to get involved.
One who did is Bushra Naji, 53, who was a teacher in Iraq for 25 years before leaving for Syria in 2006 and the United States in 2008.
Now she volunteers, helping students in kindergarten through second grade.
In Iraq, she said, she taught English by writing on a blackboard and having her students repeat after her. Here, she said, her eyes shining and her smile bright, it's "very exciting" to see the teachers interact with the children.
"I wanted to be younger," she said, "to be teacher here."