In Maryland, family and community engagement in education supports recent immigrants and English language learners through many program initiatives. One of these notable programs is CASA de Maryland, a community-based organization that seeks to improve the life quality in low income immigrant communities of suburban Washington, D.C. An advocate for public education, CASA works to harness and develop the knowledge and skills immigrants bring to their children’s education and schools.
Implementing a Learning Together program model, they seek to build family capacity to navigate the education system despite limited language proficiency, low education attainment and the challenges of immigration in today’s political climate. The Learning Together model includes:
- Parents from the community hired to engage in outreach
- Classes offered by parents to support their peers in gaining skills to access resources for their children
- Opportunities for parents teachers, and students to come together to learn and celebrate
- Professional development for teachers.
Through its Leadership Academy, CASA trains and empowers parents to promote positive changes in education policy in their communities. In the Fall of 2016, CASA opened two Community Schools, to respond to the needs of immigrant students, families and community members. They provide wraparound services to support broader family needs and develop parent and student leadership skills to engage in all aspects of their children’s education.
CASA’s family engagement work provides an extraordinary example of the vital role of capacity building not only for families, but also for teachers in effective family engagement in education. To enable true family-school-community partnerships, CASA developed a Teacher-Parents Connection[TPC] Institute, a credentialed teacher professional development training delivered through a summer institute and also throughout the year. It includes training delivered by families to educate teachers on many cultural, immigration, and language challenges faced by immigrant families to provide a mental mindset shift in order that teachers begin to see parents’ assets and recognize they share challenges in communication but also share the goal of ensuring optimal student achievement and comprehensive learning success.
So, in order to bridge any divides in reference to immigrant families, we will examine a bit of culturally specific/background information and offer insights to inform, challenge and perhaps broaden perspectives, promote culturally-responsive practices and policies as they impact the experiences of new American families.
Families who immigrate to the U.S. bring skills, talents, and cultural traditions that can enrich their new communities. However, many also face stressors that may threaten their children’s safety and well-being. Practitioners can support these families in ways that build hope, strengthen communities, promote resilience, and foster positively smooth integration into their new communities.
First, it takes tremendous courage to leave behind one’s home, friends, family and home community for a new uncertain life in a different place. Immigrants demonstrate strong determination to overcome challenges and create a better life for themselves and their children. These are incredible strengths of character, and other strengths include:
- Strong work ethic and high aspirations
- Belief in the importance of education
- Strong family bonds, including extended family members who often may live in the same home or nearby to help with childrearing and childcare
- Cohesive communities with fellow immigrants from same country of origin
Though these strengths serve as protective factors for children, families who are newcomers also face unique challenges that can cause tremendous stress.
- Some families can’t migrate together, and may face long periods of separation from children and other loved ones.
- Families sometimes face discrimination and racism in their new communities
- Poverty may result in lack of access to quality health care, educational resources, and needed services leading to children’s poor health and/or school failure.
- Some families have fled dangerous or violent situations and parents and children can have trauma-related stress issues that, if not addressed, may be compounded by other life stress
- Language or cultural barriers may result in difficulty finding jobs or underemployment with low wages and no benefits
Practitioners who are aware of the obstacles that immigrant families and children face are better equipped to employ strategies to help ensure immigrant families receive the services and supports they need to stay together and thrive.
Participate in cultural competency trainings, recognize the importance of a child’s extended family, and learn about immigrant issues and policies. Establish partnerships with community-based agencies that have experience working with immigrant populations. Tap into a range of resources to help eligible families receive concrete services and assistance. Promote diversity-recruit minority and bilingual staff to demonstrate a commitment to inclusion, foster meaningful relationships, and engage in effective communication to complement culturally responsive practices, perspectives, programs and policies.
Create opportunities for immigrant families you serve to participate alongside and in collaboration with all stakeholders in the decision-making process throughout the community, especially on local and district level school matters. As far as life in the United States for immigrant families, regardless of documentation status, it is best to focus on the strengths they bring as assets and build our capacity to be supportive of their quests for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness in America. The deficit model is clearly counterproductive, and we aren’t children who stumbled upon this vast sandcastle, claimed it for ourselves and we have decided to ban certain people from playing alongside those already there.
Essentially, we are a union founded by immigrants, grounded in freedom, welcomed other immigrants-as long as they contributed to the growth of this economy. We echo this sentiment on a vary famous Statue on Liberty Island which exclaims that we welcome those ‘yearning to breathe free’ on American soil. We did not specify that this rings true under certain circumstances, or that only certain groups are welcome here. In fact, we did not specify that those yearning masses must be of European descent only, lest America becomes too ‘brown’ or too diverse.
Immigrant families wish the same for their children and themselves as we all do. Embracing diversity is far more peace-loving than being divisive, dismissive or disrespectful. Being humane, compassionate, empathic and supportive of others, while honoring our personal and/or professional ethics, is being ‘righteous’, not ‘self-righteous’ and is being an American. Provide pathways to citizenship that are designed in the best interest of all families and families with young children.
CASA de Maryland is a superb example of how we all can support and empower immigrant families in the United States of America. Together, we can become so much better and stronger than separately! Embrace diversity!