English-Language Learners

Immigrant Students Are Under Pressure. Four Ways Districts Can Support Them

Whether they’re arriving due to circumstance or politics, districts must be prepared to enroll and serve newcomers
By Ileana Najarro — September 23, 2022 | Corrected: October 06, 2022 4 min read
Student teacher Olivia Vazquez, standing, left, speaks with a student at the Eliza B. Kirkbride School in Philadelphia, Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2021. Vazquez is finishing up her last semester at Swarthmore College and hoping to help make sure immigrant students arriving in Philadelphia have a more supportive experience in school than she did growing up.
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Corrected: A prior version of this story gave an incorrect surname for Abdul Sami Safay, a school community refugee specialist. It has been corrected.

Immigrant students—whether they are refugees, unaccompanied minors, or migrants—are becoming increasingly visible in K-12 schools across the country as immigration topics dominate headlines.

In recent weeks, for instance, Republican governors of Texas and Florida have bused or flown migrants from Texas to more-Democratic communities such as Washington, D.C., and Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts. They’ve cited the latest wave of undocumented immigrants entering through the country’s southern border, even as others accuse the governors of using vulnerable people for political stunts, and the immigrant families have filed at least one lawsuit in response.

Whether a school district is new to welcoming immigrant students or has been doing so for years, district leaders agree on some best practices to ensure these students and their families get the support they need. Here are four best practices:

Tap into federal and other funding for immigrant students

When Elena Garcia became the executive director of English-language learners for the Hillsborough County school district in Tampa, Fla., one of her first goals was to evaluate her department’s data on immigrant students and apply for immigrant grant funding through Title III, the federal program that broadly supports academic programs for multilingual students.

She realized the district qualified for the grant and was able to hire a bilingual social worker, a bilingual school counselor, and an additional interpreter to expand the district’s preexisting staffing.

Though the district was eligible for the grant before and hadn’t applied, Garcia said there have always been ways to fund programming for immigrant students if it’s a true district priority.

“Hillsborough County Public Schools has been and continues to be committed to serving immigrant families regardless of the external funding that we received,” she said.

Funding prioritization for services tailored to these students is key, said Abdul Sami Safay, a school community refugee specialist at the San Juan Unified School District in Carmichael, Calif., and that begins with the superintendent.

One way to leverage funding is to establish offices or departments focused on providing services to immigrants and refugees, as San Juan has done. The centers should work in tandem with a district’s English-language development office and other resources, such as bilingual instructional assistants, for immigrant students who are classified as English learners.

Make decisions based on data and feedback

Once funding is secured through Title III grants or other means, plans to spend it need to be driven by data and feedback from the immigrant families themselves.

The San Juan district, for instance, saw a growth in refugee families enrolling from Afghanistan and Iran several years ago. It adapted by hiring staff that reflected the community and spoke their languages, said Raj Rai, director of communication for the district.

“That really sets the stage of setting that welcoming environment,” Rai said.

In the Hillsborough district—where a majority of immigrant students come from Honduras, Cuba, and Venezuela—Garcia looks at what families need today, how those needs have shifted, and what the district needs to do to help. She gathers direct feedback from families at in-person welcome events.

Schools also need to take time to assess students’ needs when placing them in the right grade level and program, said Viridiana Carrizales, co-founder and CEO of ImmSchools, a nonprofit that works with K-12 schools to support undocumented students and their families.

And they should be careful not to jump to conclusions: Carrizales has found cases where immigrant students are classified as having a learning disability when really there’s a language barrier involved.

Invest in training for all staff

Districts can have staff dedicated to immigrant student services, but all district staff must be adequately trained to support these students and their families, Carrizales argues.

That includes knowing how to use trauma-informed practices to better account for some students’ traumatic experiences coming to the United States, and familiarity with different cultural norms.

Educators also needa basic understanding of how the U.S. immigration system works, why these families are now here, and what rights students have, especially if they or their parents are undocumented.

As a high schooler, Carrizales was undocumented, as were her parents, who feared filling out school forms that required ID cards. And Carrizales experienced an incident in which a well-meaning school counselor wanted to call immigration to figure out how to get her a Social Security card for college admissions forms—something that could have jeopardized her and her family, she said.

In the San Juan district, training goes both ways: It offers presentations for staff to learn more about countries students are coming from and their cultural backgrounds and courses for immigrant families on how to navigate the district, how it works, and what services are available.

Partner with community organizations to help the whole child

The San Juan district organizes student cultural clubs and sports teams to help immigrant students better connect with all their peers, Safay in California said. But when a district is new to working with these populations or is tight in funding, third-party partners can be a life-saver to provide these kinds of services.

Districts can partner with community organizations such as food banks to more directly lend a hand to families outside of the school day.

And local resettlement agencies know the most about the students’ unique needs and can alert districts in advance as to who’is coming, how many families to expect, where exactly families will be relocating to, and more, said Garcia in Florida.

Organizations like ImmSchools can work with districts to evaluate their resources, and where they have room to grow.

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A version of this article appeared in the October 12, 2022 edition of Education Week as Immigrant Students Are Under Pressure. Four Ways Districts Can Support Them

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