Families in Maryland schools represent 182 countries and speak 179 languages. These families contribute a wide, rich variety of cultures to our schools. Since 1990, I have worked closely with over 3000 immigrants and refugees. As schools welcome students throughout the year, here are some lessons learned from immigrant families.
1. Infant Car Seat
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What lessons have you learned from immigrant families?
A young woman from Mexico gave birth to a healthy boy. As the father was filling out the hospital discharge papers, the nurse realized that the family did not bring a car seat for the newborn. She showed the father a picture of a car seat and told him that in order for her to sign the discharge papers allowing him to take the baby home, he needed a car seat. In less than an hour, the father returned to the hospital with a brand new infant car seat, ready to take his new family home. The discharge papers were signed. Mom and Dad, with the new baby securely fastened in the car seat, left the hospital and happily began their walk home.
Lesson Learned: Make no assumptions. We assume that couples leaving the hospital after giving birth will have a car, or at least a ride home. This couple had neither, and without the ability to ask the right questions, they spent valuable time and money on something that at that point they didn't need. We often assume that everyone knows about American rules whether we are talking about car seats or school rules — and that they always apply to every situation. Rather than make assumptions, provide information, no matter how basic the rules may seem to us. Consider workshops, small groups, and one-on-one conversations to communicate rules and regulations.
2. Carlos' First Day of School: January 8
Carlos arrived from El Salvador in January and enrolled in 9th grade. On his first day, his Dad drove him to school and dropped him off at the main entrance. It was 7:10 and school was scheduled to start at 7:30, but the door was locked. He could not get inside, so he waited for someone to come and open the door. It was a cold winter morning with some snow on the ground and there was no one in sight. After about an hour of waiting, a man in a uniform appeared at the front door, unlocked it, and pointed to the clock on the wall. Carlos couldn't understand what the man was saying, but he was glad that he could come into a warm building. Soon after, teachers and students began arriving at the school. There had been a two-hour late opening due to the weather. Carlos and his family did not know about school delays.
Lesson Learned: Newcomers may not understand long-standing policies, procedures, and rules. When a new family registers in schools, the staff should provide basic information regarding school policies and regulations. Topics such as late openings, early closings, professional development days for teachers, keeping sick children at home, attendance etc. should be communicated. Many of the rules are unfamiliar to new families and schools should not assume that our rules make sense to the new immigrant families as well as the newcomers to a geographic area.
3. School Bus Transportation
An elementary school held an orientation for eight new families from five countries before school started. School bus rules and regulations were an agenda topic. I asked the parents if their child has ever ridden on a school bus. The answer was unanimous — "No!" One of the parents asked, "What is a school bus?" "Can we ride it too?" These questions helped us realize that the families need the most basic information — in this case, about school bus transportation. We explained that school buses are free for public school students, about bus stops and times, and where to find bus information. We also explained that the bus is available for children only. The orientation took longer than expected, but in the end, everyone knew the location and time for bus stops. That was a huge accomplishment for both parents and educators which potentially reduced chaos on the first day of school.
Lesson Learned: Provide basic information! In many countries, school buses are not available. Educators must realize that new immigrants and refugees are not familiar with programs and services that are available.
4. Free and Reduced Meal Forms
Over 35 Burmese refugees enrolled at the district's registration office. During the first week of school, these families received numerous forms and documents. The families didn't know what to do with the forms, including the Free and Reduced Meals (FARMs) form.
The ESOL teachers realized that this would be a challenge for their families and designated two days during the first week of school to assist families with filling out forms to ensure that all children receive timely services.
Lesson Learned: What good are programs and services if our families don't know about them? Schools may have great after school homework clubs, extra-curricular activities, free vision screening, free breakfast, etc. These programs and services are meaningful only if families know about them and can access them. Make sure information is communicated in a format that is friendly to immigrants/refugees. The best communication method is to talk to families in person. Request an interpreter to come in before or after school to share information about programs. This can take place weekly, monthly, or as needed.
5. Pizza: Most Loved Snack?
Back in the 70s, during my first month in America, neighbors brought two large pizzas to our home to welcome us. The five of us eagerly opened the pizza box. The unfamiliar smell of the cheese made us feel sick — we could not eat it. It took me the next five years to adjust to the smell and taste of America's favorite snack food. This type of food is not common in Korean culture.
I observed a similar reaction to pizza recently at a school orientation for Burmese students and their parents at an area high school. One dozen pizzas had been ordered to serve to the families at the orientation for dinner. The students and their parents all had a slice of pizza on their plates, but were struggling to eat. A few took one or two bites. At the end of the evening, more than ten pizzas remained uneaten. As with my own family thirty years earlier, the Burmese refugees were unaccustomed to eating dairy products, especially cheese.
Lesson Learned: Food is culture specific. As educators, we should be sensitive to the types of food we serve to newly arrived students and their families. In many Asian countries, the diet consists mainly of rice, vegetables, chicken and fish. There is little red meat and fried food. Though many may drink some milk, dairy products are not part of the daily diet. As an example, for the newly arrived Burmese families not yet used to standard American food, pizza was not the best choice. Rather, Thai, Chinese or Vietnamese food may have been better option.
6. School Supplies
Many years ago, I was helping a new Korean family register their 8th grade student. They didn't understand the list of school supplies, so I made a poster with cut-out pictures of the required supplies. Understanding the list that schools send out to families before school starts becomes a monumental task for immigrants as they try to figure out what spiral notebooks, No. 2 pencils, marble composition notebooks, etc. are.
Lesson Learned: Be patient! When families are new to this country, even the simplest task can become challenging. Take time to explain what students need. Use visuals. Have extra school supplies available for students. Find out if any community agencies give away back packs filled with school supplies for needy families and solicit their support.
7. Homework assignment
A 3rd grade student's homework assignment became a mystery for a new immigrant family. Each student was asked to create a collage about themself. They were told to cut out pictures from old magazines. What is a collage? What are magazines? The mom had no idea how to help her son. She brought the assignment paper to me for help. I happened to have a collage that my son had done that I showed her. I also brought old magazines and told her that her son could use them.
Lesson Learned: Many assignments require support from adults at home. In this case, a parent provides magazines, purchases a poster board and glue, and even assists in selecting pictures that represent a child. However, for English language learners (ELLs), parents often do not understand this type of assignment. Before an assignment/project is sent home, show a sample to students. Send a visual of previous year's projects for parents. Parents can be involved with learning at home even if they don't speak the language.
- Be patient: It takes time to learn new things! Take time to explain American school life, programs and services, and school assignments. Use visuals whenever possible.
- Be sensitive: Learn about the cultures, language, and history of your families. Don't make assumptions about ANYTHING and provide information on the most basic things that we take for granted.
- Be proactive: Take time to visit where immigrant families gather — ethnic groceries, place of worship, and ethnic organizations. Build relationships with the "experts" who work regularly with these populations. These organizations and experts become invaluable resources for families.
About the author
Young-chan Han is a Family Involvement Specialist for the Maryland State Department of Education. She wrote this article for Colorín Colorado based on her experience working with immigrant families.