How Schools Can Support Immigrant Students and Families

How to Build Partnerships with Immigrant Families

Learn how to build effective partnerships with immigrant families through communication, parent leadership, and culturally responsive outreach. This article is an excerpt from our forthcoming guide on how schools can support immigrant families.

(It is best to) provide a summary of information in the family's native language. Assume that families may have to be given information multiple times in multiple formats (orally, written, follow up) before they know what to do, as the system is unfamiliar.

 – Survey respondent


Schools are required to communicate with families in a language they understand. It is helpful to look at this requirement as an opportunity to tap into families' wisdom and input regarding their children rather than as a box to check — otherwise schools (and districts) may use resources and staff time ineffectively and without much benefit as a result. Here are some ideas for meeting those requirements, encouraging parent leadership, and building a greater network of support with community organizations.

Create different channels for communication in families' languages

Emergency Contact Information

Here are some tips for keeping ELL and immigrant families' emergency contact information up-to-date.

Why This Matters to Schools

School districts are legally obligated to share information in a language that families understand.  Families may also need information in different formats to understand it, especially if they have lower levels of literacy. By learning more about how families prefer to communicate, administrators can allocate resources and staff time more effectively.

In addition, it is critical to provide forms and documents in families’ home languages to the extent possible, such as registration forms, home language surveys, and emergency contact forms. Keep in mind that the U.S. educational system will be new to families and they may have lots of questions on top of their questions about complex issues related to immigration.

Tips for Getting Started

Work with parent liaisons to determine what your families prefer and how best to provide translated information. Find out if families prefer communication through:

  • in-person conversation
  • written handouts
  • email
  • websites
  • telephone hotlines / automated phone calls
  • text messages
  • social media
  • video-streaming events
  • partnerships with local community groups such as a house of worship

Posting information online

Posting translated information online increases families’ access to resources from their own home. When you find out families’ preferred methods of contact, you can find out how easily families can access information online and let them know where internet access is available.

Note: Providing a link to an online translator is not sufficient, as machine translators often mistranslate educational or context-specific words and phrases.

Recommended Resources

Recommended Videos

Video: Building parent relationships built on trust

Revisit school data about immigrant students

Why This Matters for Schools

Looking at student data can help identify patterns or experiences that may be affecting your families. While it is important not to make assumptions or ask for any information related to immigration status, the better you know your families, the better you’ll be able to address their concerns.  You may also find some patterns that surprise you, as in the case of this Illinois high school who realized that many students needed significant support in applying for college.

Tips for Getting Started

  • Revisit student data and talk with the staff who work with immigrant students to make sure you know who your immigrant students are, always protecting student privacy.
  • Remember that immigrant students may have diverse backgrounds/educational levels.
  • You may wish to ask the following questions when you look at your data:

◦ What trends and commonalities are there within the different families?

◦ Do families represent different world regions, religions, and languages?

◦ How about educational backgrounds?

◦ Are there particular issues impacting families that need to be addressed?

It is also worthwhile to take a look at your state immigrant/ELL population. For example, the Public Policy Institute of California has compiled this snapshot of immigrants in California. To see data on your ELL/immigrant student population by state, take a look at this English Learners in Select States: Demographics, Outcomes, and State Accountability Policies from the Migration Policy Institute and State Immigration Fact Sheets from the American Immigration Council. For more information on how to use state and national data sources, see A Guide to Finding and Understanding English Learner Data from the Migration Policy Institute.

Finally, avoid making assumptions about what kinds of issues and challenges families are facing based on their background, country of origin, or languages spoken. For example:

  • The DREAMer population is a diverse group; while the majority of DACA recipients are from Mexico and other Latin American countries, The Washington Post reports that tens of thousands of DACA recipients also come from countries such as South Korea, the Philippines, India, Jamaica, Tobago, Poland and Pakistan. A significant number of DACA recipients are also high school students.
  • Refugees and asylees have different kinds of rights in the U.S.; not everyone that used to live in a refugee camp has resettled through the State Department and has access to the rights and privileges that such a process entails.

Encourage family leadership

Why This Matters for Schools

Families can be tremendous allies and ambassadors for their community when given the chance. They also can provide helpful input on how to effectively meet other families' needs or address concerns.  Principal Nathaniel Provencio says that one result of the uncertainty facing his families is that they are taking on more leadership roles in the school community.

Tips for Getting Started

  • Ask families what their questions and concerns are.
  • Form an advisory group of families to discuss these issues. Ask them to identify their priorities and then draft recommendations for teachers, administrators or other leaders.
  • Invite families to school board meetings and encourage them to speak. Be sure to remind school districts to have interpreters available and encourage families to use them.
  • Take their input seriously, and don’t ask for it until you are prepared to listen. It may be challenging at first, but well worth the learning curve.

Recommended Resources

Recommended Videos

Video: Immigrant parents are rising to meet new challenges

Video Interview: Iveth Monterrosa, PTA President of Wolfe Street Academy in Baltimore, MD

Create partnerships with community organizations

Why This Matters for Schools

Beyond addressing questions of basic needs, other community partners that represent your families can be valuable allies, such as organizations with ties to local immigrants, houses of worship, and businesses. These organizations have help provide:

  • unique insights on challenges families are facing
  • skill sets and programs targeted to particular communities
  • a network of resources ready to help, as well as practical help like legal services
  • volunteers who are ready to provide an important supporting role.

The Role of Libraries

Libraries play an important role in supporting immigrant families, as seen in this article from School Library Journal about school librarian outreach and support for immigrant students, as well as in the examples of Hennepin County Library, which launched a campaign titled All Are Welcome Here, and the Boston Public Library, which has been working with schools to provide citizenship classes.

In addition, you can read about an innovative early literacy program designed to welcome immigrant families in the report Building Safe Community Spaces for Immigrant Families, One Library at a Time.

Tips for Getting Started

  • Create an asset map of valuable partners, opportunities, and resources in your community.
  • Talks with colleagues about partnerships in place and which partnerships make sense to pursue on behalf of your families.
  • Connect with other leaders in the community to discuss ways they are supporting families. These may include faith leaders, community organizations, political leaders, or business owners who wish to express their support for local immigrant communities. There may be ways to work together to have a broader impact, as well as solutions to challenges unique to the local context. As you bring people together, have some examples available of what other communities are doing.
  • Look for partners that can provide students with enrichment experiences.

Recommended Resources

Recommended Videos

How Community Schools Can Help ELLs

Parent engagement toolkits

A number of organizations have published toolkits focused on culturally responsive parent engagement with diverse families. Here are some of the highlights!



See our complete reference list for works cited in this article.



More by this author


Add new comment

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.