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By Gabrielle Oliveira
Dr. Oliveira is an associate professor of education and Brazil studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Her work focuses on family migration, care structures and the educational trajectories of immigrant children in the United States.
It was a cold day in January 2019 and Heidi, who was 6 years old, was ready for her first day of school in the United States. Her father, Jorge, woke up early to help her with her hair and pack her lunch. Jorge and Heidi had migrated from Guatemala to the United States in 2018. (I am using their first names only because of their vulnerable and changing immigration status.) Upon arrival at the Mexico-U.S. border, they were separated. For more than two months Jorge was in Texas while his daughter was 1,700 miles away in New York City.
Like many immigrant parents, Jorge’s greatest goal is to provide a better life for Heidi. And like many immigrant parents, he believes that American schools promise Heidi the opportunity for that better life. For Jorge, after the hardship of the journey north and the trauma of family separation, school offers hope.
Before Heidi headed to school that morning, Jorge took pictures of her in her dress, tights and puffy silver coat. They waited at the bus stop, looking nervous but feeling excited. Heidi spoke mostly Spanish and a little English. She was headed to a bilingual program where one of her teachers spoke Spanish. Jorge was hopeful. Heidi was hopeful.
Over 18 million children in the United States — one in four children — were born in another country or have at least one parent who was. For the last 12 years I have focused on understanding the trajectories of Latin American immigrant families in the United States. Immigrant parents describe education and schooling as among the most important benefits of migrating to the United States. Leaving home and risking the treacherous, expensive journey north is often partly motivated by the promise that U.S. schools hold for children. To migrate is to care.
The promise of education, however, became precarious in March 2020, when school closures and remote learning measures were implemented to curtail the spread of the coronavirus. These measures disadvantaged immigrant children. Their parents were unfamiliar with the school system and often faced language barriers — which posed challenges to navigating distance learning.
In addition, the pandemic compromised many in-person school support structures that immigrant students depend on, such as English-language instruction, speech therapies, reading support, social work check-ins and other forms of counseling. Between 2020 and 2021, many immigrant parents struggled to navigate their vulnerable immigration statuses and a health crisis while continuing to work outside their homes in essential services.
With school buildings open again, educators now must focus on welcoming immigrant students and families to their classrooms, providing in-person language support and, most important, learning from these families’ experiences.
When an immigrant child arrives in an English-speaking classroom without many English-language skills, research shows that the most important factors are the teacher’s mind-set, access to adults who speak the child’s language and the overall environment of the school. Some educators perceive immigrant families negatively because of cultural and language differences: They focus on what immigrant children don’t know and don’t have, as opposed to what they do know and what they bring to the classroom. A deficit-oriented view can lower educators’ expectations of immigrant children, which in turn can make it harder for those children to succeed academically. Classrooms where teachers celebrate immigrant students’ languages and cultures in meaningful ways provide a safe space for children to grow.
Language connects school and home. Any communication materials — letters sent home, emails from teachers, phone calls from nurses, signage on school walls — in languages other than English allow immigrant families to get closer to schools and educators. Bilingual or multilingual programs, teachers trained in language learning, counselors, nurses and school psychologists who speak languages that the children speak all increase trust between families and schools.
But perhaps the most effective way to provide an environment that allows for children to flourish, learn and develop is to understand the specific vulnerabilities of immigrant families in the United States. In other words, to care. Teachers in many schools have done just that. From creating WhatsApp group chats with families to engaging in parent-teacher conferences over FaceTime, teachers are meeting parents and children where they are. Some immigrant parents work in low-paying, unstable jobs, leaving them with little time to physically go to schools. There is also a general hesitance to trust the bureaucratic structure of schools because of immigrant families’ vulnerable immigration statuses. There is fear that sharing their stories, physically being in school buildings and signing school forms could hurt their asylum cases or compromise their undocumented status.
Educators in schools with high rates of immigrant student enrollment are learning about immigration laws and how those laws affect the families their districts serve. This knowledge makes authentic relationships possible.
Our society benefits as a whole when educators support immigrant students. When implemented with care, multicultural and multilingual curriculums engage students in constructive dialogue, prioritizing the human experience and genuine learning. Schools aren’t only about the hopes of individuals but also the larger hope that we can create an inclusive and just society where people of all sorts of backgrounds can thrive.
Heidi had a great first day of school that January in 2019. She mentioned the colorful classroom, the teacher speaking to her in Spanish, and her excitement about having books to bring home. It took Jorge a couple of months to trust Heidi’s teacher enough to tell her the story of their migration. Heidi had already written some stories and made drawings about Guatemala, the border and living in the United States at school.
When the pandemic hit a year later, Jorge’s hopes for school as a place of opportunity shattered. Like many children, Heidi had a hard time engaging in remote schooling. The Wi-Fi connection was unstable at home, she missed the social aspect of learning among peers and Jorge contracted the coronavirus, resulting in a three-week stay at a hospital.
Eight months later, when Heidi was able to go back to school in person, she and Jorge felt the nervousness of that January day again. But Heidi came home from her first day back and told her father that there were other students in her class who also were from Guatemala. Heidi was excited she got to use Spanish and English with her friends. She was enthusiastic about helping them find the library and gave them tips about when and how to use the bathroom at school. Heidi was hopeful.
Gabrielle Oliveira is an associate professor of education and Brazil studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Her work focuses on family migration, care structures and the educational trajectories of immigrant children in the United States. She is the author of “Motherhood Across Borders: Immigrants and Their Children in Mexico and in New York City.”
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