As a new school year begins, it’s a great time to think about how you as a school leader can support your immigrant students and families. This topic is especially urgent given the recent immigration raids in Mississippi (which occurred on the first day of school) and violent attacks on Latino members of the community in El Paso, TX.

As a leader, you can set the tone and create a vision for what kind of school community you wish to see. Of course, it’s not your job alone, but we have seen again and again that school leaders can have a tremendous impact on whether their school is one where English-language learners (ELL) succeed.

We have compiled some tips to get started.

Setting the tone

Get to know your families. Learn more about their interests, stories, concerns, and questions in informal, social settings. The more closely you work with your families, the more you can build an effective partnership.

Look for ways to create a welcoming environment for all families, including your ELL and immigrant families. Ask your families and students for input on this topic, as well as staff who work regularly with these populations, such as ESL teachers, bilingual staff, interpreters, family liaisons, paraprofessionals, etc. These staff members have a wealth of valuable knowledge that often goes untapped by school leaders and colleagues. Think about what the family experiences from the moment they walk into your school. How could that experience be more welcoming?

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Think outside the box. If your ELL family engagement efforts aren’t working, it’s time to try something new. Talk with families to learn about their priorities and preferences. Keep in mind that they may be juggling multiple jobs and challenges with child care, transportation, health care, or housing/food security.

Review your procedures for communicating with families. Are your processes working? Could they be better? What resources do you have available? Keep in mind that schools are legally obligated to provide information to families in a language they understand.

Addressing questions and concerns about immigration

Ensure your school is protecting the legal rights of immigrant students. All students have the right to free, public K–12 education, regardless of their immigration status or that of their parents. It is critical for families and staff to understand that immigration status should have no bearing on enrollment procedures or participation in school services or activities.

Check your enrollment procedure and paperwork requirements. Ensure that your school is not asking about immigration status or any question that would dissuade immigrant students from enrolling. For example, schools that do request social security numbers must explain that this information is voluntary and not required. (Ask for assistance on these issues from your district as needed.)

Learn about the immigration issues that impact your families. Rather than asking families directly, talk with the staff and community partners who have relationships with the families. They will help you understand the nuances of the issues. As you develop relationships with families, they may share more information.

Keep in mind that older students may have significant responsibilities and stressors at home. These might include jobs that help support the family, caretaking, and translation tasks. If a family member is detained, these responsibilities may increase. They also may be experiencing high levels of stress and anxiety.

Keep in mind that students might have experience with trauma, violence, or other difficult experiences. These experiences might have happened in a home country, on the journey here, or in the United States due to stressful circumstances. This is especially true for unaccompanied minors and refugees. They may also be reuniting with family members they haven’t seen for a long time or that they’ve never met.

Keep up to date on immigration policies. It is critical for school leaders to understand district, state, and federal laws regarding immigration enforcement and student privacy in order to answer families’ questions accurately and convey that information to the school community.

Learn more from our resource section on this topic and keep in mind that community partners are also a great source of updated information regarding immigration issues.

Help families keep emergency contact information updated. Educators who have experienced immigration raids in their community say that this is one of the most critical steps schools can take because it can make a significant difference in the outcome of a family’s situation where questions of legal guardianship are at stake.

Look for ways to support collaboration and the social-emotional well-being of your staff. If given the time and the support, your staff will come up with great ideas on how to best support their students and families. This can be very demanding, emotionally taxing work, however, which is where you can make a difference. Also, keep in mind that some of these immigration issues may affect staff personally.

Identify and connect with your allies and partners. Try making an asset map of all of your community resources and partners. These might include local neighbors, community organizations, houses of worships, higher education institutions, and public libraries. Figure out which issues these partners can help your school community address.

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Lydia Breiseth is the Director of Colorín Colorado, the nation’s leading website serving educators and families of English language learners, based at PBS station WETA in Washington, D.C. In this role, she oversees content development, multimedia production, partnerships, and outreach.


About the Author

Lydia Breiseth is the Director of Colorín Colorado, the nation’s leading website serving educators and families of English language learners, based at PBS station WETA in Washington, D.C. In this role, she oversees content development, multimedia production, partnerships, and outreach.

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