For Children, the Immigrant Experience Begins in School

An Essay by Anne Wicks, Director of the Education Reform Initiative at the Bush Institute

For immigrants, assimilation into American culture does not happen purely through osmosis. Schools play a key role in this process — much deeper than just teaching English.

(Grant Miller/George W. Bush Presidential Center)

Young immigrants to this country – legal and illegal – often have one common experience: attending an American public school. That experience is often catalytic.

The right set of supports in and around that school can mean that a newcomer is put on a path to self-sufficiency, academic success, and options for the future. And, of course, the converse is true as well. It is easy to assume that kids are resilient with malleable brains that adapt quickly to a new language, culture, and content if you just put them in a school with a bunch of other kids to learn English. But assimilation does not come via osmosis.

It is easy to assume that kids are resilient with malleable brains that adapt quickly to a new language, culture, and content if you just put them in a school with a bunch of other kids to learn English. But assimilation does not come via osmosis.

The growth in immigrant students

U.S. public schools are serving significantly more immigrant students today than in recent decades.  According to 2015 U.S. Census data, 23 percent of students are immigrants. That number was 11 percent in 1990 and 7 percent in 1980. 

Immigrant students and their families tend to cluster geographically, often in low-income neighborhoods, stressing the resources of schools serving mostly low-income and minority students.  Immigrant students account for 30 percent of public school students living below the poverty line.

Immigrant students come to America with an enormous range in background and education levels. For example, the needs of an immigrant student who received formal education in their home country are vastly different from the needs of a refugee student fleeing a war-torn country who may have had little-to-no formal education and be suffering from the effects of trauma. 

Cultural differences around gender and religion also may impact student’s behavior in their new environments. And the volatile politics of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program put educators on the front lines of a national policy debate that directly impacts the young people they teach each day.

The United States Supreme Court issued a decision in Plyer v. Doe in June 1982 that declared states cannot deny students a free public education on account of their immigration status. The ruling was based upon the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. The court reasoned that resources saved by excluding undocumented children from public schools were far outweighed by the harm to America’s progress by doing so. Today, all of America’s public schools work to educate all who cross their thresholds — newcomers and long-standing community members alike.

A lesson from Utah

Clearly, it takes more than an ESL teacher for schools to successfully support students recently arrived in the United States. While this work is complex and varies depending on the students and host communities, the schools and districts that are most successful in helping newcomer students become self-sufficient, successful learners have a few things in common: Strong school leaders, a commitment to knowing and understanding newcomer students and their families, using data effectively, and wrap-around community supports all make a significant difference. 

Granite School District, in Salt Lake City, Utah, enrolls over 70 percent of Utah’s immigrant students. The district serves about 66,000 students, and a little more than half of those children are economically disadvantaged and most of its campuses are diverse. For example, Woodrow Wilson Elementary School students speak more than 30 languages. As the number of newcomer students in the district increased, the district refined and expanded the supports provided to help these children and their families succeed.

Students at Westbrook Elementary in Salt Lake City sent more than 250 handwritten postcards to kids at Primary Children's Hospital. (Granite School District Facebook)

That focus begins with a public commitment from Superintendent Martin Bates that all students attending Granite schools are “our kids” regardless of status or background. The district’s educational equity department houses a number of specific supports for new students and their families.   

As an example, the district realized that many immigrant students and their families needed a better understanding how to “do school” in the United States. That led to the creation of the Tumaini Welcome and Transition Center, a two-week ongoing class designed to help any new student learn skills like how to use the restroom, how to open a locker, how to respond to a fire drill, and how to ride the bus, along with basic English skills. Students attend Tumaini before they transition to their home school.

Granite has also created several community centers, designed to extend and continue the specialized support for newcomers and their families included adult ESL classes, an academy focused on helping parents prepare their young children for kindergarten, introductions to parent/teacher conferences, and bringing district information sessions to neighborhoods with interpreters to reach families directly.  As Jadee Talbot, Granite’s Associate Director of Community Centers, shared with me: “It is wrong to assume that these parents do not care about their child’s education in the way that we care.  Can you imagine difficulty of putting your child on a bus in a foreign country where you do not speak the language or understand the school?”

Granite’s instruction approach begins  for each of its students  by valuing knowing each child. This starts with teachers seeking to understand if a student has consistently attended school in their home country or if he or she has had little or interrupted education.

The curriculum used across the district has strong ELL supports embedded and students experience daily dedicated language support.  School leaders use data to monitor student progress and deploy a multi-tiered system of support to match students with the correct interventions over time, engaging with parents along the way.

Granite makes no claims that they have figured out how to serve all students from other nations, but the district has dedicated resources  people, money, and time  to better serve this population. It is worth looking closely at their work both for ideas and to better understand the trade-offs they have made to serve a rapidly changing and often high-need student population. 

Granite makes no claims that they have figured out how to serve all students from other nations, but the district has dedicated resources  people, money, and time  to better serve this population.

We can also learn from St. Paul, Minnesota, where Hmong families began resettling over 40 years ago at the end of the Laotian Civil War. Catholic Charities and Lutheran Social Services played key roles in helping families establish new lives, and St. Paul Public Schools had to quickly adapt. 

Similarly, we should look to Lewiston, Maine, where more than 7,500 mostly African Muslim refugees have settled over the last 17 years. A once-fading blue collar mill town has been profoundly changed, at times painfully, but the district enrollment is increasing and immigrant students are successfully graduating high school. We can also learn from Pharr-San Juan-Alamo School District near the Texas-Mexico border, where a focus on bi-literacy in both English and Spanish has helped to increase student success across all subjects.

There is no one right answer about how to best support newcomer students, but it is clear that schools must provide more than English language skills to help these students achieve academic success and self-sufficiency in their new country. Strong school leaders who value understanding immigrant students, who use data to measure progress, and who engage the community broadly are essential. 

This work is intensive, and tension over the allocation of finite resources inevitably erupts. It is naïve to think that schools can  or should  do this on their own. But, as these districts show, this work can be done.

There is no one right answer about how to best support newcomer students, but it is clear that schools must provide more than English language skills to help these students achieve academic success and self-sufficiency in their new country.
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