10 ways schools can better serve undocumented and asylum-seeking students

'Schools, and teachers themselves, need supports to help newcomers learn,' researcher says
By: | September 30, 2021
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A majority of the 320,000 children from Mexico and the Northern Triangle—Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador—enrolled in K-12 public schools with their immigration statuses unresolved, according to research by the RAND Corporation.

About 75% of those students lived in just 10 states: California, Texas, Florida, New York, Virginia, Maryland, New Jersey, Georgia, North Carolina and Louisiana.

“Schools, and teachers themselves, need supports to help newcomers learn,” said Julia Kaufman, report co-author and a senior policy researcher at RAND. “Many of these children bring extra challenges to the classroom. Some have little formal education, are English-language learners, are in impoverished households or have symptoms of psychological distress and trauma.”

She and her fellow researchers found that local policies and support resources were often hard for these students and families to navigate, she said.


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To guide administrators in better serving these students, RAND’s just released its “Educating Newcomers” report. It highlights policies and practices used by Louisiana’s Jefferson Parish Schools and California’s Oakland USD, which achieved some positive outcomes but were also in need of more teaching materials, specialized professional development and more flexible funding to support undocumented and asylum-seeking students.

For example, multiple states would have needed to hire an additional 1,000 teachers to achieve optimal student-teacher ratios to accommodate newcomers, the report found.

“The migration of undocumented and asylum-seeking children, from border countries or elsewhere, will have a considerable impact on K-12 public schools, which are federally required to serve and support these students,” said Shelly Culbertson, coauthor of the report and a senior policy researcher at RAND, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization.

Here are some of the best practices researchers found in Jefferson Parish and Oakland”

  1. Guaranteed in-person enrollment with language supports for students and families
  2. Simplified intake processes
  3. Students referred to nonacademic services at the time of enrollment
  4. Specific programs and supports for newcomer students
  5. Treating language skills as an asset, including dual-language programs
  6. Approaches to building community and trust among students and families, as well as celebrate their diverse backgrounds and culture
  7. Specialized staff to meet students’ social and emotional needs
  8. Referrals and partnerships with other community programs
  9. Trauma-informed instruction that takes into account the challenges students have faced and their resilience
  10. Intensive professional learning opportunities

But because educators will need additional support beyond these approaches, the report also details steps that federal, state and district policymakers can take:

  • Create agreements for educational records transfers with Northern Triangle countries
  • Create opportunities for collaboration and discussion among the Office of Refugee Resettlement, community service providers who support immigrant families, and local education agencies
  • Provide additional funding for schools with immigration surges on a rolling basis
  • Increase funding and resources for nonacademic supports for students, such as mental health and counseling services
  • Provide professional learning to all teachers to support English-language learners
  • Create more targeted career and technical education approaches