Finding Answers for Our Immigrant Students and Families: An ELL District Leader's Perspective

Two men shaking hands in the street with a girl in a wheelchair behind them.

The following article was written by Bright Ideas contributor Kristina Robertson about her efforts to create a supportive community for immigrant students and families, as well as staff, throughout her district.

Kristina Robertson is an English Learner (EL) Program Administrator in Roseville, MN who works with K-12 teachers and administrators. In this article, she shares some of the strategies she has been using to expand support for immigrant families in the district.

You can hear more from Kristina in this Share My Lesson webinar, How School/District Leaders Can Provide Social and Emotional Support for Immigrant Students.

Part I: Overview

Tell us about your current position and district/ELL population.

I am a district-level English learner program leader in a small suburban district with about 7,500 students. We have about 1200 English learners, including many newly arriving refugees and Students with Limited or Informal Education (SLIFE). As the district administrator for our K-12 English language programming and adult basic education services, I am responsible for quality programming and support for our students and families, as well as professional development for all staff pre-K to adult.

We have a team of more than a dozen cultural liaisons representing seven cultural groups (Spanish, Hmong, Karen, Nepali, Somali, African-American and American Indian) who are responsible for supporting students and families to make connections within the school system, and to ensure equity in access and opportunities. They attend many student and family meetings and support our special education teams in working with families needing linguistic or cultural support to understand options and services. I am privileged to work in a district that really lives the motto, “Equity in all we do,” and supports the vision of increasing quality language learning and educational experiences for our multilingual/multicultural community members.

What you have seen as your role over the past year regarding support for staff, students, and families?

This year I have seen an increase in anxiety from students, families and staff members regarding the safety of our immigrant and refugee students. I have begun to provide more insight to district leaders and principals regarding immigrant and refugee experiences and guidance on needed responses from our district through supports and systemic practices. I have been reaching out to other professionals to ask them what they’ve been experiencing and how they’ve handled new situations related to immigration concerns. Overall, our district leadership has been very focused on student safety, which includes supporting the family, in order to maintain student learning and connections with friends and teachers. Our goal is always to ensure a safe learning environment and I have worked this year to provide more communication to staff who don’t understand the complex U.S. immigration laws and enforcement practices, as well as identifying social-emotional supports such as “restorative practices” that allow for students to share their feelings and needs in a safe space.

Prior to the election, many teachers reported increased student anxiety and need for conversations about political campaigns and immigration policy. This provided a good opportunity for some of our teen students to get a better understanding of our democratic election process and teachers created a unit to help them understand the political parties and some of the messages students were hearing. In recent months, families and students have been uncertain about how changes in policy would impact them and have been calling school personnel with information about family immigration problems and the need for support as their daily lives have changed drastically due to fear and detentions. Many people – secretaries, social workers, cultural liaisons, transportation staff, and principals – have been called upon to address situations they hadn’t encountered before.

You have a unique perspective because you work with diverse populations impacted by different aspects of the new or enhanced policies, such as refugees, undocumented students, and Muslim and Arab-American families. Can you share how different populations of students are impacted by different issues?

Many undocumented students live with increased fear of deportation of one or both of their parents. In some cases they have experienced the loss of a parent and other close family members such as an uncle or cousin. This causes great anxiety and sadness and makes it difficult for students to concentrate on learning and just being a kid. They are more likely to stay close to home and I’ve heard of families that don’t attend events together just in case there was a possibility of being detained.

In our Muslim community, girls in particular have experienced racial bias and harassment because they wear a hijab and are easily identifiable as Muslim and unfortunately have received taunts to “go home.” One of my Somali colleagues said some women are afraid to go out to normal activities, play with their children at the park, or go shopping. They feel that people are looking at them and they don’t know what the person may be thinking. It’s really made me more aware of how to present a friendly face or be more aware of others, even while waiting in line at the store. I try to strike up a conversation or just smile politely to ensure others that they have a friend in the community. Actually – this isn’t bad advice for everyone… put the cell phone down, right?

Part II: Action Steps: Supporting Immigrant Students & Families

Can you tell us more about the following steps you have taken, what you’ve learned in the process, the community partners involved, and why you thought these were important steps to take:

Reviewing immigrant student data at the district level

Our district reviews academic and demographic data quite often, so this is really ongoing process. However, when updated immigration policies went into place, we looked in our system to determine how many students could be impacted due to nationality. For example, we filtered for home countries that were included in the executive order travel ban and for students who had Spanish as a native language. While we know that students from any country could be undocumented, we knew the impact of increased immigration enforcement would probably fall heavily on Spanish speakers. This helped us see that there was potentially a very large impact to families that could face deportation and discrimination, as well as a large number that could be prevented from being reunited with family members entering from specifically identified countries. District leaders took this information and were very proactive in reaching out to immigration lawyers for a deeper understanding of what this might mean and also to be proactive in communicating to those impacted by the new immigration policies.

I do want to mention, however, that while the information about country of origin was helpful, we’ve actually stopped asking for this information in our enrollment process because we didn’t want any family to feel that they were being profiled or asked to offer information that may be used negatively. We also realized we had collected the information as part of our immigration count required by the state department of education, but they did not require the names of the countries. Also, as part of ESSA, our state has revised the Home Language Survey to include information about why we are asking about home language and explaining that parents have the right to refuse to provide the information if they wish, although this decision could impact their child’s ability to qualify for language services.

Reviewing and changing school enrollment forms from a lens of immigrant data

As mentioned above, we reviewed our enrollment forms to determine why we were asking for certain information that may make families feel uncomfortable such as home country and date of entry to the U.S. We determined that we didn’t need home country information for any type of government requirement, but that the date of U.S. entry was required to determine testing participation and to report the percentage of immigrants enrolled in our system. Similarly we tell families they have a choice of what data to provide but that it may have an impact on the child’s educational experience. For example, if a family doesn’t share their U.S. entry date, their child may be required to take the state reading exam while in their first year of school – something they are excused from if they have emigrated within the last year.

Meeting with immigration lawyers

We are fortunate to have a partnership with a local organization dedicated to immigration rights and we started by reaching out to them. It was no surprise they had a long waiting list to even get back to us on our questions! Our district leaders were very concerned about getting timely information, however, and were able to secure a pro bono immigrant lawyer to help inform our district level policy support for our families. We started drafting a “Safe Zone” resolution to ensure the community that we would not share student or family data unless forced by law and that all staff were dedicated to creating a safe, equitable learning environment for students. The school board passed the resolution in February.

District leaders also arranged for a Spanish bilingual immigration lawyer (through a network offering pro bono services) to hold information sessions regarding the meaning of the executive order and what steps families could take to protect their rights. We had a very large turnout. In the following months, families did experience detentions and I have heard that the information shared at the meeting was helpful in those situations. For example, one of the tips the lawyer shared was that people in detention should never sign anything without a lawyer present and especially if they didn’t fully understand the English. There are reports that detainees may be presented with a note in English that they are told to sign for their release, but that the documents are actually deportation orders. The lawyer advised that detainees should never sign anything they don’t fully understand, especially in English, or sign anything without a lawyer present. This is the kind of information that legal organizations or immigration attorneys can offer.

Setting up a meeting with a police community liaison

We have a good relationship with our local police force and collaborate regularly with the police community liaison to increase positive connections with our new immigrant community. As stories of raids began to emerge and families contacted school staff regarding their concerns, I had a conversation with the police community liaison. He was very interested in helping and we really puzzled about what that might look like given the amount of fear in the community regarding government authorities and the possibility that police might be deputized to enforce immigration policies. While our local police force is not planning to enforce such policies, families are not sure who to trust since other police departments may make different decisions. We decided to keep the conversation open and it’s been very helpful to have a connection to check on problems that are reported in the community.

In one case, families were concerned that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) was doing a sweep of the neighborhood and it turned out to be something different regarding another government agency, but it was understandable that the families would interpret it that way. We were able to get back to the families and explain the situation.

For now we are proceeding with our usual community connection activities and the police force hosted an end-of-school year picnic in one of our immigrant neighborhoods to build stronger relationships and positive connections. This positive interaction is such an important part of the equation in the long run. Our city has a very dedicated community and they have been undergoing an open community process to address the importance of creating and committing to a welcoming community for all. The police understand the anxiety in the community and they try to be available in non-threatening ways, but also understand if community members don’t seem open to them at this time. We work collaboratively with bilingual community members to find out the best ways to meet the needs of the community.

Compiling information on local community services for families

This is a work in progress and the district Community Support Team has been very helpful with this. We have a Google drive with lots of different information available to share with our families, everything from “Know your rights” information to “Energy of a Nation” curriculum on the history of immigration in the U.S. (Pretty fascinating – spoiler alert: the melting pot wasn’t such an altruistic idea….) We’ve also gotten connected with local social service agencies who are doing a lot of the same legwork to collect and share resources. They notify us of free legal information sessions.

In our local area, we also have an inter-faith community group that is dedicated to addressing the resource needs of our immigrant and refugee community members. The inter-faith community members represent multiple faiths, including Islam. They have asked us to help identify immigrant needs that they could support through their places of worship. Right now we are discussing needs for support with transportation, groceries, and rent support. While this is a great connection, there is also a need for confidentiality because we can’t share our family information or data, so we want to create a directory of resources for families to connect with as needed (rather than having faith community members contact our families).

One of the advantages of a faith-community group is that they are not bound by some of the requirements of non-profit or government grant funds – especially as it pertains to legal immigration status, and it builds understanding and connections within the community which makes it feel safer for families. Some of our immigrants are likely to feel more comfortable with religious organization support than agency support at this time as well.

Sharing basic information to dispel myths & misperceptions

We have discussed ways to sensitively share the stories of our immigrants and families to increase understanding and compassion. There is a lot of factual information available about government immigration status requirements and enforcement, as well as lists of services to provide support. However, what really motivates people is when they can share their stories and truly understand what it means to be impacted by these laws. In one session, I asked colleagues to imagine how the detention of a loved one would impact daily life – everything from celebrating holidays to paying bills. However, while our emphasis is on understanding the stories of our students and families, I always want educators to understand families’ strength and resilience and to be respectful of the family needs and their agency in the process. There is a lot more we need to do to identify leaders and information from our community members to help staff understand the realities.

Encouraging staff members to take extra time to listen to their students

As reports of student stress began to increase, I sent out an email to all staff encouraging them to take extra time to check in with students who may be experiencing anxiety that they don’t necessarily express verbally. This means a student may be acting out, distracted or sleepy due to stressors at home or within their family. I asked staff members to pause that extra moment and really listen to see if more support is needed and to offer a quiet place or breaks from learning tasks. Some students are fearful of sharing what is really going on because they don’t want to put family members in danger. We did an activity as a leadership team to discuss real-life scenarios that were reported by teachers at different grade levels. We discussed and listed what supports were available in different buildings if a student needed extra support. This was a great way to realize how students experience immigration fears differently at different ages and to think through the kinds of appropriate statements and actions to support them.

Forming a Community Support Team

We began the “Community Support Team” to bring together cultural liaisons, district leaders, social workers and teachers to provide guidance on what was happening in the field, helpful resources and how to best share them. One of the needs identified was to provide help to a family displaced from their home as a result of immigration problems and to help them maintain the children’s connections to their school, friends and support system through our program that serves homeless and highly mobile children. It’s very helpful to have this group to discuss and contribute ideas and members to do fact-checking or check in with others with related experience. The group is still forming and we’re keeping an open mind on what it will become. In the future we’d like to include parent membership as well.

Training cultural liaisons in restorative practices

This year all of the cultural liaisons have been trained in “restorative circles,” which is a way to create a safe space and invite individuals to share their perspectives and feelings. There is a protocol to facilitating a “restorative circle” that involves inviting people into the circle with the agreement that all are there to listen and work towards solutions. It’s a very powerful process and when we’ve engaged in it I am always amazed by the power of listening! We are fortunate to have many skilled restorative practitioners in our district and this is a focus for addressing student social-emotional needs and behavior concerns. It helps for students to know the structure of the circle and that they can count on a safe space for sharing.

Using word-of-mouth communication to promote events for immigrant families

We debated this quite a bit because we wanted families to feel safe and worried that blasting flyers and posting information on the web might make them receive unwanted attention and increase fear. So we had our cultural liaisons make robo-calls to language groups and staff at buildings reached out to families personally. We missed some people with this approach, but it felt safest at the time. This is an area the Community Support Team can address in the future to determine how to get the word out while helping families feel safe while also getting them the information they need.

Formalizing a process for letters of support that families request

A concern we addressed as a district system involved multiple requests from parents for “character letters” to bring to court in detention cases. I received many requests for guidance from teachers, counselors, cultural liaisons, social workers and principals – wondering if we can provide such letters and what they should say. One of the families had five children in the school district at three different schools and the mom had visited each one and talked to many staff members which caused some confusion, so it quickly became apparent we needed a district-level support person to coordinate such requests. One of the reasons that there was confusion was that we had different guidelines about providing letters of support in different situations.

Learn More: Letters of Support

For example, while we frequently gave letters of recommendation for college applications, we had a district guideline not to give letters for family disputes. There was much discussion among leaders about whether the character letter was an action that the district should support in the case of immigration detentions, partially in concern for educators who would be sharing their own names on the documents. In the end, our superintendent decided that we would provide these letters when requested, clearly stating we were going to do this because it was about supporting families to stay together - which has a direct impact on our students' learning.

The letters have focused on factual information about the child and family connection and areas where we could provide evidence as needed. For example, “______ has good attendance.” Or “_____’s parents have attended conferences and support their child with schoolwork.” And this practice has had a positive impact. I heard recently that one of our parents was released from detention and that the letters from our educators made a difference in demonstrating the stability of the family.

During this process, I realized I needed an advisory meeting with multiple stakeholders to provide insight on this issue as our system was challenged to meet family needs in situations we hadn’t previously experienced. One thing we’ve also found recently is that there are other groups forming to provide support for our families and we need to be thoughtful about whom we allow to make connections and what impact it might have on our students and families.

Part III: Social-Emotional Considerations

Tell us about the first meeting of the Community Support Team Meeting.

The first meeting was an invite to a variety of district staff members who had expressed concern and a desire for the district to do something to support our immigrant families. I wanted the meeting to be a peaceful and welcoming environment – so difficult to set up in most school meeting spaces (harsh lighting, uncomfortable chairs!) So I brought good coffee (carafes from Starbucks) and had some healthy and unhealthy snack options (oranges and chocolate chip cookies). As we assembled at the table, I had a little glass bluebird (no special significance – just what was available!) to pass around to introduce and center ourselves to get started.

Each person held the bluebird and introduced themselves (people were from across the district and grade levels so some were meeting for the first time) and they shared why they had come and what they were feeling. Many were unified in why they had come – to support our students and families – and the feelings were very powerful. We will continue this structure for our meetings because this is such emotionally draining work. We are trying to find answers for students and families we care deeply about. Team members said they really appreciated the time to be together and share their thoughts and feelings with others who were on the same page.

In what ways is this team designed to meet the needs of a diverse range of students?

When we began discussing this team’s work, the diversity director and I recognized that there were many consistent themes between what our immigrant families were experiencing and that of our African-American communities. During the past year, we had a significant incident regarding a young man’s fatal encounter with a police officer that impacted our community deeply. We have been working with African-American, as well as all, youth and families to address that tragedy and to develop ways to increase safety so it seemed like a natural connection for our Community Support Team. That’s why we didn’t have “Immigrant” in the title of the group. We want the team work to be flexible and to encompass whatever concerns may arise in our community that threaten the safety and well-being of our children. We will continue to look for ways to expand our work.

What are some of the strengths and assets that you have seen in your families?

They are very well connected within their communities and contact our trusted staff members (mainly cultural liaisons) when they need support. They may experience fear, but they are also willing to use their voice to speak out and ask questions. They are determined and when given a long list of tasks by an immigration lawyer they focus on completing everything as quickly as possible and often at great expense. They are very proud and supportive of their children and will do anything to ensure they are comfortable and able to continue learning. Many families are connected to support each other’s children in case of emergency need for support. Some families cannot share all that they are experiencing as parents, or information about reunifying family members, because they don’t want to worry their children. There is a lot of emotional burden to their lives at times, but they smile and seem grateful for each other and the support of community members. I am always impressed by their graciousness and resilience.

Why do you think that keeping the focus on supporting the child is the most constructive approach to this work?

As a public leader you always worry about the consequences of a decision, a statement, or an action and you want to examine issues from multiple perspectives. Who might gain from a decision? Who might be harmed? As we discussed our district’s support of families, we recognized that the heart of the matter was keeping students safe and supporting their continued learning. This meant that we needed to measure our actions by how they related to supporting the students’ learning and social-emotional well-being. This has been helpful in empowering leaders as they make decisions in response to new situations. Our job as school leaders is to support our students and districts’ have taken on more and more responsibilities related to the welfare of children – not just in response to immigration. That’s why we are focused on supporting the child in this situation too.

Can you talk about the far-reaching impacts that detention (or even the fear of detention) can have on a family’s daily life?

We are just beginning to see some of these effects. The immediate effect is fear and confusion as families try to figure out where the loved one is detained and what the process will be. We are now seeing the financial effects families have experienced too – for example, if a father has been the main wage earner and he is detained, the family is missing significant income. This has an impact on their ability to pay the rent or mortgage, buy food and in some cases transportation becomes an issue if the remaining parent doesn’t have a driver’s license. In addition, if the detained person is released on bail, our immigrant lawyer consultant said they would likely have to pay $3,000 for the bond. If a person is detained for many weeks they are likely to lose their job and the family may lose their housing and have to start in a new community. This creates instability for families and communities. This is what we have experienced so far, but I know we will learn more in time. We want to connect families with the resources they need to maintain their home and stability in the community.

One quote you often refer to is that of Mr. Rogers’ encouragement to “look for the helpers”. Why does that quote resonate with you?

It speaks to the positive actions we can observe and take in response to painful community events. There are always people striving to make a difference and caring for others. It lets us focus on the humanity of the situation rather than the situation. I also hope it will empower others to become helpers.

What has your experience been in terms of families having a heightened level of mistrust of schools and what parents want from schools currently?

I believe there are many parents who don’t really receive an adequate explanation of the academic programming provided to their child and how it may help them. This is compounded by an additional sense of unease in the current climate. I experienced this specifically with our English learner program. The federal law requires a notification letter be sent home to inform parents of their child’s participation in the English learners program, as well as the child’s language assessment score and the type of programming they will receive. While the letter is translated (to the extent practicable per law), it is still not a very effective way to spell out what their child’s day-to-day learning experience may be and why the program is beneficial. The lack of adequate communication about the program may cause parents to judge their child’s academic experience based on their own personal academic experiences or the input of others in their community.

We recently had a family meeting with the Somali community to explain the English learner program and they asked very good questions that really demonstrated to me that we have a lot of work to do to proactively inform families every step of the way in the EL program process – from identification for testing screening based on the home language survey to the types of programming support offered according to language proficiency level. Of course, we also want them to understand the value of receiving additional language support services and we need more conversations about the difference between academic English and social English. Some parents may be unhappy that their child receives English language services because he/she was born here and they speak English very well so the services seem unnecessary. In addition, at the elementary level children are often pulled out of mainstream classroom time to provide language services, and parents want their child to receive the same educational opportunity as their native English speaking peers by staying in the classroom.

Educators need to do a better job of showing parents the child’s academic language progress and how language support programs support the child’s ability to be independently successful in a variety of career or college settings. Parents have the right to fully understand the academic program their child participates in and to be an informed advocate for additional resources but they first need to understand what support is available. Next year we will work on a protocol to connect personally with parents and explain the English learners program and provide examples of student work to help them see the progression of language complexity in the proficiency levels.

How are you managing the stress of your job currently?

It’s a challenge to balance my usual work efforts of supporting teachers and administrators to provide quality language instruction and programming while adding the layer of addressing immigrant and refugee community needs. The best thing I can do is stay connected to others who are doing the “helping” work that Mr. Rogers referred to. They inspire me and help me carry the load so that I can be the advocate I need to be. I realize this is a long game and the most important thing is to create networks of support that will be readily available over time. Right now we’re building a system in response to events as they unfold. It’s important work and I also need to be realistic about how much I can do at this time. I look forward to the day we have the systems and resources easily in place. That said, I have a daily reminder app on my phone to remind me to breathe at 3:00 each day. But I haven’t followed it in months….I’m a work in progress.


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