Equity & Diversity Q&A

A Primer on Helping Immigrant Students Feel Welcome in School

By Corey Mitchell — November 02, 2016 16 min read
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Asheville, N.C.—Last fall, anti-immigrant signs posted in the halls as part of a homework assignment tied to immigration and the presidential election sparked anger, confusion, and fear at Erwin High School, a 1,300-student school here.

More than a year later, school staff still refer to it as ‘The Incident,’ a class assignment viewed out of context on social media, and something that doesn’t reflect what really goes in the hallways and classrooms of one of the most diverse schools in the region.

In the 14 months since, the district has taken steps to repair their rapport with immigrant students and their families. In a visit to Buncombe County, Education Week examined how the presidential campaign’s rhetoric on immigration has affected Latino and immigrant students in the district and nationally.

Here are excerpts of interviews Education Week conducted with four school district employees: David Thompson, the district’s director of student services; Norma Duran-Brown, family outreach specialist; Erwin High social worker Shelly Rose; and Jim Brown, the high school principal.

The interviews, edited for clarity and brevity, explore their roles and actions in the recovery. Please take a look:

David Thompson has worked in the district for about a quarter century. “The reason many of our families come here is because they want a safe, better place for their families and more opportunities for their families,” he said. “That’s something that we cannot be reminded of too often in our work.”

EW: What did the district do ... in response to the community reaction, but also to prevent something like that from happening again?

Thompson: One of the things, that we immediately did, was try to engage our Latino families, and the Spanish-speaking families. We began a series of evening meetings with the administration, at Erwin High School with counseling, the student services department there, the superintendent [Tony] Baldwin, and myself.

It was really around listening to what their issues were, what they perceived to be barriers to their participation in school, or the adjustment of their students in school, or to their student’s success, while they were there. It was really as much about listening sessions to understand their perspective, and to problem solve what they thought was part of that process.

Yeah, that’s the other thing that happened, immediately, the same day of the incident that occurred is kids were angry. They were emotional, but, they needed to be heard. We took a whole afternoon and allowed them ... Just like we would a public comment, because there were so many who wanted to be heard, we gave them three minutes apiece. ‘Come say what you want to, and we’re not going to censor you.’

We heard some things we wanted to hear, and some things we didn’t want to hear, and some things that were real, and some things that weren’t, but it was the anger that we heard. It was the frustration that we heard. That’s what they needed to do.

We took the notes. We put everything up on charts. We shared those comments with the parents. We got their input about it. We got kids who actually came, with their parents, to some of those meetings and what their reaction was to those things, now. There was a student group that started meeting with the student services department, shortly after Norma [Duran-Brown] became hired ... a student group, who came so that they could talk, with the counselors and social workers and the department, about what their concerns were and felt supported there.

The immediate response was really listening, as much as anything, and acknowledging that, yes, we realize this is an issue for you. We’re going to address those things with you, and you will help us address those things.

EW: When you say that the students were angry, what was the source of the frustration? Were these solely Hispanic students that had frustration, or were they coming from the entire student body?

Thompson: It was from across the student body. It was a good number of our Hispanic, Latino families and kids, but they were also white kids who believe in equality and equal opportunity. There were Eastern European kids who were there, some of the [students from the Marshall Islands], who were neighbors and friends. I mean, it was really across the board ... we looked at ourselves, as an institution and an organization, and make sure that what we practice is fair to everybody.

I need to say up front that there was not ... I think if you were to ask somebody, before this incident, ‘Is this is an unfriendly environment?’ They probably would say, ‘No.’ As in any organization, there was this perception of institutional bias that’s kind of underlying. It took one incident that was a homework assignment, where they were asked to take a different perspective, a political perspective, and develop a campaign sign, based upon that. What they wrote, on those signs, may not have even been their opinion.

It was an assignment, but it hit the nerve that was reality to those who have experienced that frustration, and anger, and that cultural difference. Many of our students ... Norma will tell you this, and she can speak more from the Latino families. I certainly don’t want to be their spokesperson ... many of them do have that chronic stress trauma experience, as their immigration process, or the reason why they immigrate into the U.S.

I think that assignment touched that nerve, that relates back to their own experience, prior to coming to the U.S., and since they’ve been here. That was kind of the touchstone that created the environment for that to happen.

Norman Duran-Brown came to the district in February after playing a vital role in helping students and families affected by ‘The Incident.’ A bilingual immigrant from Argentina, she’s a person on campus that immigrant and English-language-learner students consider a confidante.

EW: Did you find the school district? Or, did the school district find you?

Duran-Brown: So, when all this happens, it’s like they knew where I was. I think the fact that I went through all those stages, as a mother, immigrant, putting their children to school, it gives me that perspective.

EW: What was happening, or what was not happening, for students to perceive that [the school] was unfriendly in some way?

Duran-Brown: What was very interesting for me, is to find how many, even Latino students, that say, ‘I didn’t feel that I was treated different. I feel that my teachers care about me’ and this is ‘an incident’ but I didn’t feel that the culture the school was that. Of course, there will be another ones that will say, ‘No. I felt it. It was there.” I think we are working very intentionally in finding and more one-on-one, why a student might have that feeling. We are looking at each of our students and trying to find what’s going on and making sure that they don’t feel unwelcome.

EW: What’s your big challenge now?

Duran-Brown: I would say from my point of view trying to get that very accurate grasp of what means to be an immigrant and don’t speak the language and even when you speak the language, where many of our students live in two realities and have to find your own identity.

They identify themselves as Latino, they feel Latino, but they also feel as American as anybody else and what that means, even once that you feel part of here, what that means. When you’re not, because you just came and you don’t speak the language at all, and everything is a constant threat, try to put that in numbers, in situations, in things that they become tangible and real for everybody, it is challenging. Also, it’s challenging for these students and their families.

I try to accomplish that, to make that tangible for them too, that for this beautiful community in the mountain, so protected by the mountains, things have changed in the last twenty years so fast. Honestly, it was really, really fast. I was shocked when I came [back] in 2000. I left in ‘86. I couldn’t find anybody that speaks Spanish. I come in 2000, and my first thing was, “Holy crap, [what’s] been happening in this time?” In the grocery stores, that they were full of people speaking Spanish.

Erwin High School’s Forum Addressing Improper Display of Immigration Posters from BCS Communications on Vimeo.

Shelly Rose took a job at Erwin High in the weeks after ‘The Incident,’ arriving from a job in a neighboring county.
EW: You came here in the aftermath. Was it a planned shift, or was it something in response to what happened?

Rose: I had a parent pointedly ask, I’ll never forget that, and he pointedly asked, ‘Why did you come here when you knew that this is what happened?’ My honest answer, and I continue to stand by it, is that there wasn’t anything along the way they made me say, ‘I don’t want to do this.’ I want to be part of it. I want to be part of how we move forward. Of course there’s a, ‘Wow, how do we manage it?’ It was where I thought I needed to be.

EW: What sort of things are [students] looking to talk about that concern them?

Rose: I’m the school social worker, and so I’m a big picture person when it comes to the school setting for any student. What that means is that, hopefully, as students get to know me they can figure out that there are all sorts of reasons, and hosts of reasons, that students can access me. There are, without thinking too hard, I can think of several students with whom I meet regularly, who are navigating issues much like any other student. The differences come in, maybe, around families being divided, family members being in other countries. Then what does that mean for that child, that kid who’s here? Then how do we make sure that in looking at that bigger picture that we’re pulling all those players in when it’s not necessarily so easy to do?

I’m certainly very mindful as I’m working through those kinds of things with kids, that sometimes they’re cautious about what they share because they want to protect their families and they want to protect maybe what they know about family members in terms of legal status. But mine is a confidential setting, but that’s always something that’s in the back of my mind as I watch them close.

What do you call it? It was certainly a time of discomfort. How do we move forward? How do we educate ourselves as staff, so that students feel safe here? I think that that’s something that, with our students who are immigrants ... Our educational system is so different from what kids are used to, who are from other countries. One of the things that we’ve worked on at a county level is our, it’s the longest title ever, Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students Committee. One of the things that we’ve worked on, and I’ve been on a subcommittee of that committee, to address what do we do when we have an immigrant family come in? What are the steps that we need to be able to follow? The check boxes, ‘Okay, we’ve done this, we’ve done this,’ nuts and bolts, but then beyond that, what can we do that will help sustain these families, and particularly the students, throughout the day and throughout the course of their school career, but to get them up and running?

Part of what we’re trying to do is figure out some sort of, for a lack of a better word, ambassador program. There’s lots of ideas floating around out there right now. We’ve talked in the committee about trying to connect students with teachers who are very comfortable with families who are immigrants, and students who are immigrants, so that a student’s initial welcome into this school is with folks who really feel like they have their heads wrapped around that. This is all in the works. Then we’ve talked about an ambassador program where we have students who, and we do that now where we have students who give tours to students and try to help understand just the basics of our educational system, which is amazing, but also very difficult to navigate, for any of us, never mind if you’re brand new to the country. I think we’re doing some things here, at Erwin High, but I also think it’s allowed us to have that larger focus as a county, too. To try to figure out how we make sure that we’re meeting their needs in the best way that we can.

EW: You mentioned a word, discomfort. Why do you think there was discomfort?

Rose: I think, honestly, that probably what that did was bring to light some things that, perhaps, in any microcosm of society they’re there under the surface anyway, and so I think we can all move through, and go about our day, and not put our glasses on and really see those things. I think that this said, ‘Nope, you’re not going to ignore this.’ I think it forced everybody to take a deep breath and to say, ‘Okay.’ Going back to the word, the incident, it’s not just about that. To me that just was the impetus for looking at some things that are deeply rooted, and I don’t think that’s just here at Erwin High School. I think it happened at Erwin High School, it happened to happen at Erwin High School, but I think that speaks to any school, USA, any microcosm of our society. If we respond to it in the right way, and continue to, we will hopefully be able to use it as a huge learning tool.

EW: Is there still some residual [pain] for any of these students?

Rose: I can’t say that specifically any students have brought it up to me this year, in certain terms, but I think we’d be remiss to say that it’s not there, and that it’s not underlying. As recently as last spring we were definitely hearing that there was still some anger around everything that went down during that time period. I don’t think that by any stretch of the imagination that it’s not a part of these kids’ lives.

My hope is that, truly, that people, like myself, the four school counselors, Norma, our school nurse, our student services department, if kids are feeling not heard, discriminated against, or not supported in some way, that they know that they have other voices in the building to help pull heads together and figure out, ‘Okay, where do we go from here?’ A lot of times I think it is just education, and helping for, me included, the larger population of staff to figure out, ‘Okay, so we maybe don’t understand this because of this, but what does that mean, and how do we deal with it, and how do we move forward? How do we help this kid get their education that they deserve just like every other kid?’

Jim Brown is in his ninth year as Erwin High principal. He’s also worked as a teacher, counselor and assistant principal at the school, having spent most of his career in public education on the campus and lives in the neighborhood.

EW: What kind of demographic changes have you noticed over time here, especially as it relates to immigrant students and English-learners?

Jim Brown: When I first started here in the early ‘90s the only diversity we had was the white population and African-American population. Even within that community, it was unique because our school district ... You take a look at our county, it’s like a slice of a pie. The wider part of the pie is rural, what you associate as southern rural Appalachian farming communities, very remote families that have got six or seven generations of the same family living on the farm. It’s a farming community, and it still is. There’s still a large farming community in this community.

Part of our diversity has been immigrants coming in, both Latino and Hispanic immigrants, but we also have to recognize the fact that we also have a very solid portion of Eastern European immigrants, kids from Ukraine and Russia. Also too, a large Pacific Rim immigrant community from the [Marshall] Islands. It is in many ways almost like a United Nations here with the diversity.

EW: How much did what happened last year catch you off guard?

Brown: It totally caught me off guard, and I’ll tell you the reason why. We thought we were doing a good job reaching out to our immigrant community, to our Latino community, as we did to all the other communities we serve. Getting back to what I said earlier, when I hire teachers, when I work with teachers, when I counsel with teachers, I explain to them that it’s all about the relationships here at this school. We can’t accomplish anything if we don’t have a good working relationship with our kids, with our families, with our stakeholders.

EW: This could happen at any high school across the country. What advice can you offer for principals who think that [they’re] doing a good job in bridging that gap and making that connection. What is it that you have to do without some sort of incident or blowup to try to insure that you’re actually reaching out and connecting with those families who help shape the student’s experience as well?

Brown: It depends on what kind of resources they have. I think that any school that has a large portion of non-native immigrant students needs to have some type of support position similar to what Norma has to help facilitate ... Someone who is able to speak the language and to understand the culture. I think to be proactive, I think to have community forums where folks come in, and have it in the evening hours that the parents are off from work, and have it in a non-threatening location where they feel comfortable to come to, and it doesn’t hurt to have a meal.

I think it showed to our immigrant community that we want them to be as much a part of this community as everyone else. I think for a long time ... I’m not sure, and correct me if I’m wrong Norma, I’m not sure ... We never saw them. I only deduced certain reasons why. Maybe they just felt intimidated to come up here. Maybe it was the language barrier. Maybe it was they just didn’t feel comfortable coming into a government building. I think what we’ve done is we’ve taken away that hesitancy and they feel more comfortable because they know people in this building and they’ve got those connections.

If I had a principal anywhere in this country that had a similar situation, I’d say get out in front of it. I would even say probably bring in some type of sensitivity training when it comes to cultural awareness about the difference between what you’re saying and how it’s being perceived by people in the community.

EW: This all came about because of the social studies assignment discussing immigration. Is that a topic that’s off limits in your classrooms now?

Brown: It’s part of our curriculum. I think what happened was things were taken out of context. If you knew the whole story behind it, the teacher who actually facilitated that activity had just recently moved back to North Carolina from Arizona, where she had been working on an Indian reservation school teaching the students at the reservation.

Without any type of putting it into context, she took the work samples and posted them outside her classroom, on the wall outside her classroom, and a student walked by, saw it, didn’t have the context of what this was about, took photographs, and once it got on Facebook it took a life of its own and became viral.

[The teacher] understood how it was taken out of context and how it was inflammatory. Those comments were inflammatory. They were unacceptable. Had a student said that to another kid here at this school, they would have gotten a consequence for being disrespectful to a student, but they were taken out of context. You know what? Our superintendent likes to say we find the silver linings in every storm cloud, and the silver lining is what we’re doing here right now.

Photo Credit: Kayla Estrada , 19, is an immigrant from Mexico and student at Erwin High in Asheville. In her first week at the school in 2015, controversy erupted when some students created posters with anti-immigrant messages as part of a civics assignment.

-Jacob Biba for Education Week

A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.