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Four Ways School Leaders Can Support Undocumented Students

Principals must address the immigration-related fears of their school community

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As schools open their doors in the coming weeks, millions of students will have much more on their minds than new backpacks and schoolwork. If students’ parents are immigrants, or if students are immigrants themselves, they might be afraid that upon returning to school, federal immigration officers will be waiting to deport them.

There were an estimated 725,000 undocumented K-12 students in U.S. public and private schools in 2014 and another 3.9 million students whose parents were undocumented. That’s a lot of scared kids.

—Getty

In recent months, President Donald Trump, along with some U.S. senators, have proposed various immigration policies—the latest framed as “merit-based.” These policies seek to severely curtail the number of immigrants coming into the country each year. The merit-based bill Trump endorsed early this month would cut legal immigration levels in half by awarding green cards based on a point system that factors in age, education, English-language proficiency, and job skills. But it isn’t just the introduction of potential legal changes that is troubling.

Educators need to keep in mind the ramifications that these conversations have on students. Such conversations contain deeply troubling racial, ethnic, and economic undertones that create immense fear among immigrant students and, in turn, undermine their capacity to focus on—and excel in—school. By federal law, immigration officers are not permitted to go into schools to detain students, and school districts are prohibited from providing third parties—including the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement—any information contained in student records. Even so, in recent months, some immigrant families have been too scared to send their children to school.

School leaders have a legal and moral responsibility to serve in loco parentis (in the place of parents) to protect and support their most vulnerable students. Educator and immigrant researcher Roberto Gonzales found in his 12 years of chronicling the experiences of undocumented young people that those students who were highest-achieving could name several mentors they had while in school.

At the NYC Leadership Academy (where I serve as chief strategy officer), we support school and school system leaders to leverage their roles to address difficult issues head on, all in service of dismantling the inequities that perpetuate opportunity gaps. Many of our leadership coaches have been front and center helping school leaders implement supportive actions in their schools. Here are four key leadership practices we teach to principals that other leaders can use to support immigrant students:

"In recent months, some immigrant families have been too scared to send their children to school."

1. Lead with student-centered school values: Identify and integrate a set of core values into the daily work of the school. Use those values to guide conversations, emphasizing that the school exists to support students and assuring families that no child’s education will be compromised because of his or her family’s country of origin.

2. Actively confront discrimination and xenophobia: Openly challenge behaviors among students and staff members that promote bias and disrespect. Set and reinforce a high standard for behavior and for listening and learning across differences.

3. Boost dialogue: Facilitate discussions that respect all viewpoints and allow everyone to be heard. Transform disagreements among students and staff into opportunities to engage in dialogue that leads to productive debate and ongoing relationship building. Use news to encourage conversation, and help students understand how to use data and research to inform their opinions about immigration and other politically charged policies.

4. Disseminate information: Create systems and structures for sharing resources, such as paper newsletters, parent-teacher conferences, and websites, remembering that students are often a primary source for their families to obtain necessary information. What does this support look like in practice? When one Brooklyn principal heard some of her immigrant students say to their friends that their parents were talking about packing their bags, she worked to keep students and families informed of their rights. She encouraged them to attend chats neighbors were hosting in their living rooms for information, invited legal-aid lawyers to educate students on their rights, and sent home packets on immigration laws for parents. At the same time, the principal armed her staff with resources, recommending talking points, articles, and booklists on immigration they could share with their classes.

A middle school principal in San Francisco went door to door to reassure families that their children were safe at school. And an elementary school principal in the Bronx borough of New York City shared her own family’s journey from Ireland to the United States to make sure that her students knew that she could relate to them.

Of course, principals can’t do this work without their staff’s support. Said one principal, “I tell my staff, ‘No matter who you voted for, you are responsible for protecting the students in our school. If our kids are nervous, it’s our job to fix that.’ ”

For many school leaders, the work might feel risky. (I saw this firsthand: Though principals were eager to discuss this issue with me, many feared being named in print.) While some school system leaders, like those in Chicago and San Francisco, have stood up for immigrant families, there are communities where leaders support proposed immigration policies and practices. When principals ask us what they can do to support all their students despite the political climate, we remind them that their work takes courage.

It’s important for school leaders to forge alliances with educators, school coaches, and community members to create a culture of open dialogue about these hard-to-discuss topics. What stance, if any, has the city or school system taken on the intersection of immigration and schooling? What structures does the school currently have to engage students and parents beyond academics? Have educators spent enough time building authentic relationships with families?

School leaders must leverage what is a crisis for so many millions of children and families into an opportunity to establish themselves as allies and advocates, and as leaders who actively celebrate diversity of thought, opinion, and background, even when it isn’t easy.

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