Engage Families to Support Immigrant Students

Meghan Rosenberg
Public Education Institute

Family members and children at The Immigrant Learning Center.
Family members and children at The Immigrant Learning Center.

One of the most important institutions for immigrant integration is K-12 education. Immigrants are assets to our country, and if the children of immigrants have full access to high-quality education, they can become more successful adult community members. As we prepare new content for the upcoming free online workshop Immigrant Student Success: Strategies and Tools for K-12 and Adult Educators hosted by The Immigrant Learning Center’s Public Education Institute on July 9 and 10 from 11:00 AM to 2:00 PM EDT, we are looking back at some of the best strategies presented by our experts in past years. We encourage you to register for this free professional development opportunity to learn the latest in best practices in education that include and support all students!

While the research consistently shows that parental involvement increases student achievement, particularly for minority students, many schools experience difficulty partnering or even communicating with immigrant families. In our annual online workshop Immigrant Student Success, we routinely hear from educators seeking support in this area. Our expert speakers say that building this critical relationship is about more than just opening the doors and hoping families will reach out. Here are some steps that every school and district can take.

1. Know parents’ rights

First, it is important to know the legal rights of all parents in public school districts. Laura Gardner of Gardner and Associates, LLC cites three major parental rights that parents and even schools may not know that immigrant parents have:

  • The right to weigh in on school board policies, regulations and committees
  • The right to provide input on the school district’s budget and how funds are spent
  • The right to receive information in a preferred language

This fact sheet published jointly by the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of Education contains vital information on school communication with Limited English Proficient parents and guardians.

2. Find cultural connectors

Second, recognizing that the backgrounds and experiences of immigrant and refugee students and families vary widely, schools can try to better assess and understand parents’ needs by connecting with key individuals who can act as links into immigrant communities. Eileen Kugler, author of Engaging Immigrant Families as Partners: Beyond Assumptions and Stereotypes, says, “The way to find out what immigrant parents really want is to build relationships so you have some cultural connectors.” These “connectors” might be community leaders, district staff members or other parents.


Pyramid, with layers labelled in descending order: Cultural Leader, Cultural Connector, Cultural Learner, Cultural Survivor

Both Kugler and Gardner point teachers to the Four Stages of Immigrant Parent Involvement, charting immigrant parents’ journey from a “Cultural Survivor,” who is just trying to acclimate and meet the basic needs of their family in a new country, to a “Cultural Leader,” who seeks out opportunities to get involved and advocate for students.

Parents at the higher levels of the triangle are better equipped to operate within the education system and can help schools and immigrant communities better understand each other. Having relationships with these individuals is crucial to engaging parents lower down on the triangle who may not feel comfortable interacting directly with the school. In addition to seeking out parents to be cultural connectors and leaders, schools can proactively diversify their staff even creating dedicated liaison positions. Gardner says, “The number one thing school districts can do is hire bilingual/bicultural folks representing immigrant communities.”

3. Learn their context

Experiences and practices in education vary widely across countries and cultures. It is imperative for school leaders to recognize that the American educational system may feel foreign and even intimidating to immigrant families. Dr. Lisa Dorner of the Missouri Dual Language Network encourages schools and districts to “try to figure out more about the educational histories and experiences of the folks in [the] community.”

Dorner cites experiences of low immigrant parent attendance at school events despite outreach efforts, but asks school leaders to consider parents’ understanding of the school system as well as “the intimidation factor” and the political environment. She suggests that we “reverse our thinking and think about going out into that community.” Consider conducting home visits or creating opportunities for local cultural immersion to better understand families’ needs and expectations.

4. Give them their own space

Schools and districts can go one step further to proactively help parents find their voice in the school systems. Dorner says, “There may be a time and a space where, in order to gain access to power, you give people a space to figure out how to do that.” One way schools and districts are doing that is by creating immigrant parent advisory boards to help families interacting with teachers and school boards to advocate for their children’s wellbeing. Another is through immigrant parent leadership classes or “academies” like those offered by Abriendo Puertas/Opening Doors, Somali Parents Education Board and Logan Square Neighborhood Association, or by creating their own.

Schools and districts that take steps to proactively engage immigrant families will find their students more successful, their schools more vibrant and their community enriched. All immigrant parents deserve to be actively involved in their children’s schooling, and every school deserves to have the diversity of its community represented in decision-making. Kugler reminds us, “We forget they are strong. We forget they are organized. We forget they are resilient.” Focusing on and bringing out the strengths of immigrant families will result in a better educational experience for all children.

For resources curated by The ILC’s Public Education Institute, including Colorín Colorado’s A Guide for Engaging ELL Families: Twenty Strategies for School Leaders, visit our Immigrant Student Success educator resource library.

U.S. risks no longer attracting Nobel-worthy talent

By Michele Waslin, PhD, and Kevin Nazar
Institute for Immigration Research, a joint venture between George Mason University and The Immigrant Learning Center

Woman in graduation cap and gown

The world’s top scientists tend to be highly mobile. They frequently cross borders to study, work, collaborate and present their research. The U.S. attracts science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) scholars and students from around the world.  Notably, dozens of Nobel laureates from the U.S. were immigrants or foreigners working with U.S. universities. Unfortunately, changes to U.S. immigration policies are making it more difficult for these highly skilled individuals to study and work in the U.S. raising the question: Is the U.S. closing its doors to future Nobel Prize winners?

In the last decade, the share of international students earning master’s degrees in science and engineering has risen from 26 percent to 35 percent. In 2016, international PhD graduates in Engineering, Mathematics and Computer Sciences outnumbered U.S. citizen and lawful permanent resident graduates. Currently, many of those newly minted STEM graduates remain in the U.S. to work. Many of those graduating this season will stay for up to three years through a specialized visa extension program called Optional Practical Training (OPT). OPT is becoming increasingly difficult to get, and there are few other options for international STEM graduates to remain in the U.S., even though scientific innovation relies in part on foreign-born talent.

Our own research has found that more than one-third of total U.S. Nobel laureates were immigrants. In 2018, three of the foreign-born winners were associated with U.S. universities and research centers during their careers. French-born Nobel Laureate Gerard Mourou became a professor at the University of Rochester in 1977, where he and his student, Canadian-born Donna Strickland, produced their Nobel prize-winning work on high-intensity, ultra-short optical pulses. Mourou went on to found the Center for Ultrafast Optical Science at the University of Michigan in 1990. Japanese-born immunologist and Laureate Tasuku Honjo worked at the Carnegie Institution of Washington and at the National Institutes of Health.

What about potential future Nobel Prize winners? Foreign-born PhD holders make up 52 percent of all U.S. workers in Nobel-Prize-related occupations in physics, chemistry, medicine and economics. In some fields, the numbers are even more disproportionate: 72 percent of petroleum engineers and 60 percent of biomedical engineers with PhDs working in the U.S. are foreign-born. However, recent changes to immigration policies threaten to negatively impact foreign scholars’ ability to study, work and conduct research in the United States. Visa and green card applications are experiencing processing delays, and employers have a more difficult time recruiting top job applicants. Foreign-born graduates of U.S. universities today have a more difficult path toward employment. The 2017 travel ban severely restricts nationals from several countries from coming to the U.S. at all. It appears the U.S. is still not receptive to foreign innovators. Highly-skilled immigrants worry about whether their spouses will be able to get work authorization.

We’re starting to see the impact. The number of new international student enrollments in graduate, undergraduate and non-degree programs in U.S. colleges and universities has decreased for a third year in a row. According to data from the Institute for International Education’s Open Doors report, between the 2016/2017 and 2017/2018 academic years, there was a 6.6 percent decline in new international student enrollments, which was double the decline in the previous academic year.

As the U.S. becomes a less welcoming, less desirable destination for highly skilled and highly motivated foreign nationals seeking an ideal location to receive an education and conduct their research, other countries are waiting to recruit these workers. We live in a global marketplace where multiple countries compete for the best and brightest students and researchers, and the next Nobel Laureates might decide to take their talents elsewhere. The results would be devastating for the future of U.S. innovation and technology.


Teach Empathy Through Storytelling

Meghan Rosenberg
Public Education Institute

Two women talking

We often hear that divisions can be bridged by listening to each other. Educators are in a unique position to empower young adults to listen and learn from each other by sharing stories. Read on for some of the best strategies and tools for fostering empathy through storytelling, particularly around the topic of migration.

Narrative Encounters

“Empathy is not sympathy but an equalizing human value,” says Dr. Dawn Duncan, a professor at Concordia College in Moorhead, MN. Her organization, Narrative 4, uses intense one-on-one story-sharing sessions to help classrooms, community organizations and businesses learn to build empathy. “It’s a soft skill, but it is not soft as in easy,” she says about the skill development that activates and even grows parts of the brain during what Narrative 4 calls a “narrative encounter.” These skills include listening deeply and intentionally, speaking vulnerably with an extended gaze toward the speaker, and stepping into another person’s shoes by retelling their story in the first person.

How can you use empathetic narrative encounter in the classroom? The Tale of Two Schools describes one such encounter. Students from very different school settings were paired off to exchange stories by listening carefully and then retelling the other person’s story while taking on the persona of their partner. This opportunity to “shatter stereotypes by walking in each other’s shoes” is a low-tech technique that can be deeply impactful.

Stories of Migration

Sharing stories can be an important learning and healing tool for immigrant students and their classmates. Dr. Laura Grisso writes for Colorín Colorado, a website serving educators and families of English language learners (ELLs). In Building Bridges Through Storytelling: What Are Your Students’ Stories? she shares resources for helping ELLs tell their stories and describes the power of storytelling both inside and outside the classroom. She writes, “Storytelling provides a way into those difficult conversations and an opportunity to remind us of the common ground that we do share.”

Tap into students’ tech literacy with digital storytelling. Teach Immigration offers lesson plans for launching a digital storytelling project using students’ own family immigration stories and creating podcasts from interviews with immigrants to cultivate empathy among students.

Family History

Adam Strom, director of Re-Imagining Migration, sees the opportunity to capitalize on peoples’ feelings about their own family history to build connections among migration stories, between individuals and across history. “Migration is really our shared experience as humans,” he says. Moving Stories, an app developed by Re-Imagining Migration, comes with an educator guide and allows students to record their own and others’ family migration stories to “explore and reflect on our shared histories and experiences.”

Sharing and making connections across immigration stories can foster understanding of others’ humanity beyond the rhetoric students hear daily. For more from these experts and many other resources curated by The ILC Public Education Institute, visit our Immigrant Student Success educator resource library.


“We All Want to Belong”

Two people shaking hands in a wheat field

Fears about immigration are based in our psychological fear of “the other.” Yet when we examine the core values that we live by every day, we may find that we all have more that brings us together than sets us apart.

Sara McElmurry, author of Proactive and Patient: Managing Immigration and Demographic Changes in 2 Rural Nebraska Communities, spent time in two small Nebraska towns that have experienced major demographic changes due to immigration. She found that all the residents were able to adjust to the new diversity by realizing that they have values and interests in common: family, hard work, faith and “an affinity for small-town living.” She says, “They build a mutual respect for each other’s work ethic that has helped to transcend language or cultural differences.”

“We all deeply want to belong,” says Rachel Peric, executive director of Welcoming America. She highlights the need for welcoming not only arriving immigrants but also neighbors who may initially feel uncomfortable with the changes they are seeing. “How can we do this work of lifting up immigrants in a way that actually lifts up our whole community and makes everyone feel like they belong?”

Immigration is not just about immigrants; it’s about all of us. We share a common humanity. We desire to work hard, to feel safe and to belong, and we all deserve the chance to realize this dream.

For more on finding common ground, click here to view recordings and slides from The ILC Public Education Institute’s webinar What We Have in Common: How to Talk About Immigrants.

How the Holiday Spirit Can Open Up Conversations About Immigrants

People sharing food on a Thanksgiving table

The holidays are a time when many people reconnect with their core values through giving, sharing and uniting with friends and family. When the topic of immigration comes up, however, we are often tempted to debate the subject using facts and policy details. What values can we activate in ourselves and others to help us talk productively, rather than contentiously, about immigration in the holiday season?

Dr. Marisa Gerstein Pineau, a researcher from the FrameWorks Institute, which uses social science research to drive social change, gives us a few value-based approaches (or “frames”) to give context to discussions of immigration. “Values…help establish why a social issue is important, not just for that particular group, but for all of us,” she says.

Human Dignity/Moral Obligation: Everyone deserves basic compassion and respect, no matter who they are or where they were born.

Shared Prosperity: We all collectively benefit from the talents, skills and cultures immigrants bring into our country.

Pragmatism: A practical, working immigration system is a common-sense goal.

Prof. Westy Egmont, retired director of the Immigrant Integration Lab at Boston College, expands on these values as they relate to religion. “Welcoming a stranger is about as basic to the faith community as any single message. Treat others as we want to be treated: The Golden Rule.”

This holiday season, as we take the time to reconnect with our own stories and core beliefs, try having a values-based conversation about immigrants with a friend or family member: connecting to our most basic shared humanity and American practicality when it comes to welcoming newcomers can lead to greater prosperity for all of us.

Dr. Egmont goes further to say, “Make it part of your Thanksgiving celebration… Let’s find a way where someone’s story becomes a story that we can all identify with and want to do something about.”

For more from these and other experts, click here to view recordings and slides from The ILC Public Education Institute’s webinar What We Have in Common: How to Talk About Immigrants.

Sharing a Meal, Sharing Our Values

People talking at a party

This holiday season, friends and family will have a lot to catch up on. When topics related to immigration come up, how will you respond?

To start, resist the temptation of simply sharing facts and figures in the hope of persuading others. According to Dr. Marisa Gerstein Pineau from the FrameWorks Institute, a not-for-profit organization that studies framing of public discourse on social issues, “Starting off with a moral argument is the most effective way of shaping people’s thinking.” In fact, sharing a holiday meal may be the best time to remind your loved ones that families of all cultures, backgrounds and origins share love, gratitude and a desire for success and stability.

To help with your conversations about immigrants this holiday season and beyond, The Immigrant Learning Center’s Public Education Institute will convene Dr. Gerstein Pineau and a panel of social media, communications and immigrant integration experts for the free, interactive webinar What We Have in Common: How to Talk About Immigrants, on Thursday, November 13 from 1:00 to 2:00 p.m. EST. This free webinar will offer the most up-to-date tips to have respectful, productive conversations about immigration in today’s climate in person, online, in your campaigns and in your programs. Click here to register.

Making a Connection with One Conversation

People sitting across the table from one another with cups of coffee

The election is over, and Congress is split, with immigration as a key battleground. Many people are entrenched in their party of choice, but when it comes to the issues, there are proven ways to successfully open conversations.

One of the ballot questions voted on in Massachusetts was a proposed measure to repeal anti-discrimination protections for transgender people. In 2016, two social scientists showed the effectiveness of a specific method of reducing transphobia: having a conversation, letting people talk and “encouraging actively taking the perspective of others.” The ballot measure was defeated, securing protections for transgender residents, due in part to conversations that happened around the state.

Anti-immigrant rhetoric, like transphobia, preys on our most base psychological tendencies of fearing outsiders. Can a simple conversation counteract this?

The experts say yes. When we encourage people to put themselves in an immigrant or refugee’s shoes, they may discover that their core values and motivations are the same. We all want to live in a safe, welcoming community. We all want the best for our children. We all want to work hard to create a better life for ourselves and our families.

Join The Immigrant Learning Center and a panel of communications, social media and immigrant integration experts for the free, interactive webinar What We Have in Common: How to Talk About Immigrants, on Thursday, November 13 from 1:00 to 2:00 p.m. EST. This free webinar will offer the most up-to-date tips to have engaging, effective conversations about immigrants in today’s climate. Click here to register.