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Education and Immigrant Integration

Many newcomers come to the United States seeking economic opportunities for their families as well as educational opportunities for their children. Like most families, they recognize the critical role that education plays in the long-term success of their children.

From their earliest years, education helps children and their parents integrate into communities. Indeed, all levels of education set the stage for ongoing language learning, career and workforce development and civic engagement. Additionally, of all locations, schools are where immigrants tend to interact most with the community. Many immigrants do have young families, and the school can be a strong force for helping families and children with developing a sense of belonging.

In particular, immigrant integration and education can be studied at four levels:

The preschool context provides an opportunity to work with families of younger children, who may be earlier in their acculturation process, at a critical time in their children's development and when families would strongly benefit from broader community support and interaction.

Equally important is providing opportunities for children from immigrant families to benefit from the positive long-term effects of high quality early learning opportunities. As studies demonstrate, children from linguistically, culturally and socially isolated families who attend early childhood education programs are better prepared to attend elementary school. Academically and socially, these environments serve as a valuable bridge to the K-12 experience and pave the way for immigrant children's long-term success.

However, while the children of immigrants are more likely to face economic hardships, to enter formal schooling less prepared and to experience a subsequent achievement gap throughout K-12, fewer are enrolled in pre-K programs than children from native-born families. Barriers to early childhood education opportunities for children in immigrant families include their parents' lack of awareness of programs, a lack of affordable and accessible programs, and programs that are not always responsive to the needs of diverse families.

Key components of early childhood education that help incorporate integration include:

Community Outreach: What strategies are employed to reach out to the immigrant community in order to make diverse parents aware of early childhood education opportunities and their role in U.S. education?

Enrollment: To what extent is the enrollment process accessible and flexible to support families with diverse needs?

Provider culture: How does the classroom environment portray a climate that appreciates and values diverse cultures?

Instruction: How are the curriculum and classroom instruction tailored to fit with cultural differences and to promote sharing across cultural groups?

Integration services: What family support services are available, such as parenting classes, English language instruction, health literacy, citizenship classes and workforce training?

Parent involvement: How are parents empowered to be part of the school? How are they communicated to about their child? Is there a give-and-take between their needs and the schools expectations for parent involvement? Are their skills used? Are there opportunities to prepare them for future interaction with the K-12 system?

Community Building: Are there meaningful opportunities for parents and families from diverse cultures to interact with each other and with longer-term families?

Staff professional development: What are the requirements for teachers to demonstrate skills in cultural competency? How are teachers' cross-cultural skills enhanced over time? How are diverse providers recruited into the profession and supported?

Language Access: Are there linguistically diverse providers who are able to meet the needs of linguistically diverse children? If so, what is their fluency level? If not, how are language interpretation needs addressed? To what extent are dual language programs in place and supported?

Elementary and Secondary Education

Ensuring that all children achieve in school, both academically and socially, are the hallmarks of educational reform efforts. Surprisingly, such efforts have not always focused on the unique needs of children from immigrant backgrounds.

Perhaps the most significant piece of policy for immigrant children and education is No Child Left Behind (NCLB), which federally mandates the ongoing testing of all children in order to measure academic progress. Not surprisingly, many LEP students do not perform as well as their peers on these state tests. However, as they gain English proficiency, their scores increase and they are close to their U.S. born counterparts in both math and reading.

Schools and school districts should comprehensively examine how they support integration. In particular, they should examine their policies and practices as they relate to:

  • School enrollment
  • School culture and climate
  • Family and community outreach
  • Classroom instruction
  • Student assessment
  • School-based Adult ESL and family literacy

For more details on these practices, The Immigrant Integration Educator Resource Guide provides a comprehensive set of recommendations for schools promoting immigrant integration.

Higher Education

Many youth from immigrant backgrounds need to be made aware of their options regarding higher education and should be encouraged to pursue advanced degrees. Many will be the first in their families to pursue a college education in the U.S., so they may need extra support in understanding higher education financing and the skills needed to succeed in college. While some may go on to pursue advanced degrees through community colleges or universities, higher education remains out of reach for many youth, particularly those who are undocumented. Many are very strong students, but without any avenues to regularize their status, they will be unlikely to be able to afford the out-of-state tuition that public universities would require of them. Because they may not find options that allow them to attend college, many may be more inclined to drop out of high school.

Health Literacy

Need to explain health literacy to your students?

Health Literacy is an important and touchy subject. It is important to be able to inform our refugees of such important issues in the classroom. The U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI) has the Healthy Living Toolkit (USCRI Toolkit). There are several downloads in many languages that can be incorporated into the classroom. For ideas on how to use these in lessons, contact Spring Institute.

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