Welcoming Immigrant Students Into the Classroom

ts_welcome-immigrant-studentsThis blog post was originally posted on Edutopia.org by Sara Burnett of the Community Education Center of the American Immigration Council and contains useful recommendations in line with the Tellin’ Stories approach to family engagement. The photos are from the day-to-day work of Teaching for Change in schools in the D.C. metro area. Read about Teaching for Change’s resources for educators  to teach about Central America here.

By Sara Burnett

According to the Pew Hispanic Research Center, there are roughly 1.7 million undocumented students under age 30, who are enrolled in high school, have graduated or obtained a GED, or are currently enrolled in elementary or middle school. Additionally, this past summer our nation witnessed a spike in unaccompanied minors crossing our southern border with more than 50,000 children fleeing persecution from Central America and Mexico. Most of them await immigration court dates while staying with relatives or sponsors, but in the meantime, our laws require that they attend school. In 1982, the Supreme Court determined in Plyer v. Doe that all students, regardless of their immigration status, are entitled to access K-12 education.

As the number of immigrant students increases, and sometimes in areas not historically associated with large immigrant populations, teachers and administrators are often seeking assistance with not only how to enroll these students, but also how best to meet their needs in the classroom. We’ve compiled a few best practices to create a welcoming classroom for immigrant students as well as some helpful Do’s and Don’ts for building relationships with them and their families.


Building Relationships

ts_welcome-immigrant-students-3DO put out the welcome mat.

Send a message that all students, regardless of immigration status, have a right to attend your school and are welcomed.

DON’T demand documentation.

It benefits no one when you use a lack of documentation (birth certificate, immigration status, social security number, etc.) to prevent an undocumented student from enrolling at a public school. A May 2014 letter (PDF, 170KB) issued jointly by the U.S. Departments of Justice and Education offers guidance for how schools can enroll students even if they lack certain documents.

DO seek support from mental health professionals and community groups.

Some recently-immigrated students have experienced trauma from violence witnessed in their home country. Having a school counselor check in with all immigrant students is good idea not only to help students adjust to a different culture, but also to process any trauma, if encountered. Some students may need support for how to deal with difficult situations in non-violent ways.

DO reach out to parents, guardians, and/or sponsors.

As teachers, we hear this often: calling home and saying a few positive words about a student can go a long way toward establishing a good relationship with the student and his or her family. If language is an issue, ask a friend, teacher, or student to translate a letter or email home into the native language. Even if it’s not entirely correct, the effort will be appreciated.

ts_welcome-immigrant-students-4DON’T think that lack of response means lack of caring.

A parent, guardian, or sponsor may work long hours, or they may be afraid to talk with you because of a language barrier, their own immigration status, etc. Continue reaching out in a friendly, inviting way.

DO tell students about administrative relief.

Deferred action is a temporary relief from deportation. The DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program has been expanded, and a new DAPA (Deferred Action for Parental Accountability) program has been created for parents of a son or daughter who is a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident. While neither program is a path to citizenship, it allows families to remain together in the U.S. temporarily and receive employment authorization. Point students and their families to the Administrative Relief Resource Center to see if they qualify, to learn the steps to apply, to contact an immigration lawyer, etc.

DO hold undocumented students to high expectations.

In some cases, you may have to scaffold materials depending on a student’s language proficiency, but the level of challenge should be equitable. College is quite possible for them as more and more states have enacted their own versions of the DREAM Act, making higher education accessible for thousands of undocumented students.

DO check in with your recently immigrated students.

Ask them how they feel about their school work, what they miss about their home country, what they like and don’t like about America, and what questions they have. Give them daily or weekly opportunities to write and/or talk about their immigration experience with you and fellow students.

Continue reading here.

Related Resource: Teaching for Change’s campaign to Put Central America on the Map in Schools, including free lessons and resources for classroom teachers.