English-Language Learners

Want to Support Immigrant Students? Get Creative With Funding

By Ileana Najarro — September 27, 2022 5 min read
Eric Parker teaches a class NW Classen High that has immigrant students and he has a flag representing each, which is a way to make them feel welcome, Tuesday, September 10, 2019.
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Welcome centers with staff that reflect the culture and speak the languages of immigrant students and families. Bus tours of the school district’s neighborhoods. Even assisting in international evacuations of students.

When it comes to supporting immigrant students—whether they’re refugees or migrants, or the children of newly hired workers—school districts have come up with creative programs and initiatives, as well as creative funding models to sustain such efforts.

It’s been by necessity, thanks to a wrinkle in how dedicated funds for these students work.

Districts that see a significant increase in their immigrant student population can be eligible for grants through a portion of Title III funding allotted to their state for supporting English learners. (Up to 15 percent of this state funding is set aside for districts with influxes of immigrant students.)

But researchers and district leaders argue Title III funding isn’t enough, nor is it designed to best sustain work in supporting students beyond their linguistic and academic needs. While some districts are able to piece together different funding sources and prioritize these students when making funding decisions, many others struggle to do so.

“Quality of an education shouldn’t depend on your ZIP code,” said Patricia Dawson, director of English as a Second Language and bilingual programs for the Coppell Independent School District in Texas. “Well, this is the same in this scenario. The services and academics and resources and advocacy shouldn’t be devalued, based on a perceived funding source, or distribution thereof.”

Here’s a look at how two school districts support immigrant students—and the challenges they’ve faced sustaining services for them.

What kind of services do districts tailor for immigrant students and families?

In the Coppell, Texas district, a large portion of the immigrant student body comes from India, Japan, and Korea, mostly as their families have employment with companies in the area. The district also has refugee families.

For years the district has built out an extensive array of wraparound services. Coppell has prepared welcome packets in 40 different languages informing families about U.S. schools and on the district itself. The district offers newcomer parent classes twice a month throughout the year at various times of day online. In those classes, live translators can pop up on screen to assist in answering questions, such as how to check on a child’s grades and what a gifted program entails.

There are bus tours for families around town with stops at key places, such as the district administration building, where they can meet the superintendent, and the local library, where they can get library cards. The district also uses a transcript validation service to make sure it can properly review academic transcripts from foreign countries, so it can give students credit towards Texas’ required courses for graduation.

At the Elk Grove Unified district in California, mental health therapists specifically for newcomer and refugee families now provide support, said Lucy Bollinger, a program specialist with the district’s Family and Community Engagement department. That was a new funding area for the district that arose during the pandemic.

Students speak some 126 languages in the Elk Grove district, and while some students come in with some formal education, others have had limited, if any schooling. So the district offers professional development for both new and veteran teachers on how to best build relationships with immigrant students while also holding high expectations for them.

How can districts fund immigrant support services?

In Texas, the Coppell district is able to fund its wraparound services by getting creative and ensuring funds add to services, not supplant them, Dawson said.

They do this by looking at all available and allowable funding sources at the federal, state, and local level and using data on students’ need to make decisions on where to spend—like ensuring that the state allotment for instructional materials goes in part to support English-learner resources.

In the past, using Title III funding earmarked for districts with increased immigrant populations, the district has run summer programming for such students. The four weeks of half-day and full day programming focused on teaching English through academics.

But in summer 2021, the district couldn’t provide the program because it was no longer eligible for the immigrant grant funding to cover it.

“That was the one thing out of everything that we couldn’t move somewhere else to be able to fund, because it’s about $100,000 for a month of summer programming when you look at staffing, resources, food, child nutrition, transportation, all of the things,” Dawson said.

When reviewing district data on needs for learning recovery, Dawson found that more than 85 percent of Coppell’s English learners chose to stay home during the pandemic to learn virtually. Many immigrant students fall into this category, and they had less opportunities to collaborate and interact with their peers in school, which is key for language development.

The federal pandemic relief funding proved to be a godsend. The district used it to restart the summer program this year, and created a plan to maximize local and federal funding, community partnerships and other grants beyond ESSER’s shelf life.

For the first time in several years, the Elk Grove district also didn’t qualify for the Title III immigrant funding, Bollinger said.

Her team works with the deputy superintendent and directors of other departments to ensure that English learner support is woven throughout any and all budgeted actions and goals they have. They’re guided by California schools’ Local Control and Accountability Plans, or LCAPs, which are three-year plans put together by local educational agencies covering the how, what, and why programs and services are selected to meet local needs.

For the 2022-23 school year, California also required inclusion of “increased or improved services for foster youth, English learners, and low-income students.”

Both districts prioritize their English learners and immigrant students, but with funding so uncertain, Bollinger and Dawson worry that students in other communities may find themselves attending districts where funding is allotted for them as an afterthought. This can lead to programs starting and stopping depending on when there are funds available.

“Changing a programmatic model is more harmful, and can be more harmful than not providing any services at all,” Dawson said.

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