Oct. 15, 2019
Each year, schools in Nebraska open their doors to immigrant and refugee youth from around the world. These students bring enormous strengths to their new classrooms, including extraordinary resilience, high educational aspirations, and diverse cultural backgrounds. But despite their obvious assets, many of these young people are coping with a complex web of stressors, from poverty to traumas associated with migration and resettlement. Experts agree that these monumental challenges have the potential to not only impede students' healthy development but also their ability to acquire a new language and achieve academic success.
Thankfully, the state’s largest school district, Omaha Public Schools (OPS), is working to offset the many out-of-school barriers faced by immigrant students and their families. In addition to meeting their special academic needs, the district has devoted considerable attention to connecting these learners and their families to a wide range of resources that can help ease their integration into their new communities through partnerships with community-based organizations, social service agencies, health clinics, and more.
ESL Classroom at South High School | Photo: Ingrid T. Colón
The Office of English Learners, Dual Language, Migrant and Refugee Education at OPS, which has been instrumental in supporting immigrant and refugee students and their families, is working to respond to the district’s fast-changing demographics. The English learner (EL) student population at OPS alone has grown by 500 percent in the last 23 years and now makes up about 18 percent of all students enrolled in the district.
While the majority of the ELs in OPS are U.S.-born, the district is seeing increases in the population of foreign-born students who now make up 11 percent of the district's total enrollment.¹ Within these groups are smaller segments of students who have spent three or fewer years in U.S. schools and refugee students who relocated to the U.S. due to war, violence, or natural disasters in their home countries. In fact, refugee students comprise over 5 percent of the district's enrollment, a proportion that is up 123 percent over the past decade.
The centerpiece of the district’s approach to meeting the needs of such a diverse group of immigrant and refugee youth and their families is the Yates Educational Community Partnership, a community hub that strives to help newcomers become successful, active members of the Omaha community. According to Veronica Hill, a migrant teacher leader who is based out of Yates, the center aims to support the integration of refugee families on multiple fronts so that they are better positioned to support their own children. She said, “We help families to integrate successfully and to mitigate some of the stress, change, and trauma involved in being in a new place so that parents can be happy and successful and they can pass that onto their kids.” To support this goal, OPS staffs Yates with full- and part-time personnel, including a secretary, a student/family advocate, bilingual liaisons, contracted interpreters, and childcare workers.
A top priority for Yates staff is helping new immigrants and refugees learn English and adjust to life in the U.S. To this end, staff members organize a variety of support programs, including five levels of English classes and workshops on obtaining citizenship, computer and internet skills, cultural orientation, and school engagement. Yates’ family literacy program also offers activities that help caregivers support the literacy development and school readiness of their young children (birth to age 5).
To make their educational offerings more robust, Yates leverages cross-sector community partnerships. Partners such as Family Housing Advisory Services Inc., Employment First, Heartland Family Services, and Trinity Episcopal Cathedral regularly come to Yates to share information and support around employment, citizenship, paying bills, banking, parent involvement, family literacy, and raising children in a new country.
Inside Yates Educational Community Partnership | Photo: Ingrid T. Colón
Partnerships with local service providers also help Yates staff connect families to sorely needed basic social and health services. For instance, Yates has an ongoing partnership with the World Health Center, which provides free flu shots every year. Yates staff also organize a permanent donation center, where newly settled families can access clothing and household items, with volunteer support from the Schlegel Center for Service and Justice. The student/family advocate at Yates helps families take full advantage of services provided by other local organizations. They may, for example, refer families in need of reunification support to Boys Club, a local non-profit organization that helps families overcome the psychological impact of family separation.
Yates staff members also told us that they pay special attention to families with undocumented and mixed legal status. “We're very aware that some of the things that we're providing here, through our refugee clients, are also helping people that are coming in with other statuses other than then refugee,” Hill said. Attention to these groups is particularly important, she explained, because undocumented families have less access to public resources. Recent research shows even when families or their children are entitled to claim public benefits, ramped-up immigration enforcement efforts can pressure them to avoid healthcare providers, teachers, and school officials over concerns that their citizenship status may be questioned. The student/family advocate at Yates takes into account a families’ particular circumstances and connects them to available physical and mental support services, regardless of immigration status. For instance, families may be referred to the One World Community Center or Health Access Services in Omaha, which have a sliding fee scale for those who do not have health insurance. Importantly, the Omaha Public Schools board passed a resolution in 2017 articulating extant laws that protect the privacy of undocumented families in its schools.
The district’s bilingual liaisons are another essential feature of OPS’ approach. The district employs 22 elementary, 17 secondary, and six refugee bilingual liaisons who can connect families to school-based personnel—including psychologists, counselors, and social workers—who are available to address their unique needs. Liaisons also act as conduits of information about school enrollment, transportation, dress codes, and grades. Bilingual liaisons are trusted cultural interpreters and academic guides who often make home visits and help open communication channels between families and teachers who may not know a family’s language. Many of these liaisons are refugees and immigrants to Omaha themselves who are greatly invested in helping their community. One French and Swahili liaison explained, “I become a liaison to be a bridge between the schools and my community.”
Experts believe that the stress factors that trigger migration are unlikely to go away in the coming years; therefore, schools in the U.S. will likely continue to enroll migrant youth in new places and old. As more schools enroll these learners, one thing that can be learned from OPS is its approach to easing the integration of immigrant and refugee families into new communities and schools. Immigrant and refugee students and families undoubtedly benefit from this commitment and so do their new communities.
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 According to email communications with Omaha Public School Division of Research 5,569 students were formally classified as foreign-born and 2283 students at OPS had zero to three years of U.S. schooling (out of a total membership of 50526) during the 2017–18 school year.