Student Voices Are Clear. Listen.

Our schools are critical tools for helping newly arrived immigrant students adjust to their new homes. What’s the best way to know how to help? Listen.

One in Four

In the United States, nearly one in four students is a child of immigration. Educators in U.S. schools know this and are committed to helping immigrant children succeed. We refine instructional strategies and focus attention on language acquisition specific to reaching English language learners (ELLs). And yet, as our national demographics continue to change dramatically, many school districts still feel ill-prepared to meet the diverse needs of immigrant students and their families.

On December 15, 2014, the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) hosted a special screening of I Learn America, a documentary film co-directed and co-produced by Jean-Michel Dissard and Gitte Peng. I Learn America follows five immigrant teenagers through one school year at a New York City high school. Watching this film, it’s clear that newly arrived immigrant students share many of the same needs as their American-born peers. They too need a variety of support systems, including, but not limited to, specialized English language instruction. And when educators create the conditions that welcome and support immigrant students and their families, they cultivate safe spaces where all students can fully be themselves.

Immigrant students come to school with a range of worries. Some may be distracted by their family’s undocumented status. Others may be grieving the loss of loved ones in their immigration journey. And others may have fled conflict areas where they witnessed life-threatening conditions. None of our students’ stories are the same.

What are some situations immigrant students face? Here are two common scenarios.

An interrupted education. It is not uncommon that a newly arrived immigrant student experienced an interruption in his or her formal education. Brandon, one of the students featured in I Learn America, describes how he finished grade four in his home country of Guatemala, lost a year of school while immigrating and was placed in grade six when he arrived in the United States. He worked as hard as he could to succeed in school, but his limited English proficiency and the inappropriate academic placement were stressful. He felt overwhelmed and unproductive and needed additional support from his teachers.

Locating translatable academic records of newly immigrated students can be difficult, and testing students with limited English language proficiency may lead to inaccurate placements like Brandon’s. This can exacerbate the challenges of immigrating and cause them to compound each year as academic demands increase. Modifying entrance evaluations and revisiting placement after the first six or eight weeks of class could be the difference between a student graduating and dropping out.

Reacquainting with family. Many newly arrived students are reuniting with immediate family they haven’t seen in years, possibly even fathers or mothers last seen when the student was too young to remember. Students often leave extended family, friends and community in their home country. Uniting with family in the United States may include meeting a new blended family and finding their place within an established household. It is a common thread in the immigration narrative. One student in the film explains, “Crossing the desert by myself was easier than getting to know my mother again.”

Like the students in I Learn America, our students are the unique combination of all their identities. All students want to learn, grow, build friendships, continue their educations, be near family, dream and succeed. They want to celebrate and communicate all their identities—and if they are immigrants, they want to do this while discovering new selves in a new country.

Student Voices Are Clear. Listen.

When asked what was hard about immigrating, one student responded, “The hardest part was that I lost myself along the way, and I am still trying to recover.”

Another said, “Homework is the hardest part. I didn’t have anyone to help me with my English or math at home. Now I try to help new arrivals and support them.”

At the DOE event in December, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan expressed the value of our immigrant students by saying, “The children of immigration are here to stay. The way we fare in welcoming them will have lasting impact.”

Teaching immigrant students is more than teaching language acquisition. It’s adjusting grade-level placement when necessary. It’s learning about the family. It’s putting student voice in the curriculum through the use of materials that reflect the communities they come from and where they live. It’s seeing all students as assets on campus and investing in them. It’s hearing—and valuing—their stories.

Wicht is the senior manager of teaching and learning for Teaching Tolerance.