Having face-to-face visits with newcomer students and their families outside of the classroom can create lasting and meaningful connections between educators and families new to the country, experts said during a recent webinar hosted by the Institute for Educational Leadership and Welcoming America.
But, panelists added, these visits need to be prearranged, voluntary for both parties, and considerate of the challenges the families might be facing, such as language barriers and unfamiliarity with the American education system.
Families may be coming from localities where the expectations between a school and its families are different from the expectations between a school and families in the local community, said Gina Martinez-Keddy, executive director of Parent Teacher Home Visits, a nonprofit that advocates for supportive and intentional parent-teacher home visits.
Increased immigration has some communities calling for more guidance on best practices for welcoming students and their families into school settings.
In FY 2022, U.S. Customs and Border Protection recorded 155,020 accompanied and unaccompanied children along the Mexico-U.S. border. The Los Angeles Unified School District enrolled more than 13,000 international newcomer students in the 2021-22 school year, according to the district's governing board. And in Chicago, the district welcomed about 5,300 new EL students in the 2022-23 school year, according to the district.
To accommodate students new to the country, districts like Chicago Public Schools, Georgia's Cobb County School District and Florida's Broward County Public Schools, have opened welcome centers with staff to enroll students, orient families to the school systems and provide other supports.
The U.S. Department of Education in June published an updated toolkit to help schools and communities meet these students’ academic, social-emotional and mental health needs. It includes resources for various situations, such as engaging newcomer families and providing professional development activities for educators.
But state guidance on enrolling newcomer students is lacking, a report by Next 100, a think tank for policy leaders. According to the Oct. 11 report, only 22 state education agencies (43%) have guidance directing districts to collect information about newcomers' prior academic experiences during the enrollment process.
Next 100 recommends schools implement a process for interpreting how a student's previously completed courses fit into the district's course offerings so educators can best determine a student's course placement and awarding of course credits.
During the Oct. 24 webinar, panelists emphasized that educators should adopt an asset-based mindset when welcoming families new to the country, including focusing on a student's strengths rather than dwelling on the challenges.
"You've got to go in with joy and love for the families and for the students," said Carrie Richardson, a 3rd and 4th grade newcomer teacher in Denver Public Schools. "You have the student in common with the family, so you already have a point of connection. And so when they see the connection that you have with their child, then they're going to be able to open up and trust, as well."
Here are other suggestions panelists provided for approaching home visits with families who are newcomers:
- Be intentional about the visit. The Parent Teacher Home Visits organization recommends several core practices to use with any family, including making visits voluntary for both the family and educator, and scheduling them in advance.
Concentric Educational Solutions, a company that works to improve student outcomes, has a five-step model for home visits that calls for educators to meet both before and after the home visits. Michael Gary, Jr., Concentric's chief of staff, said planning for and documenting results of home visits can help keep track of supports provided to each student. Gary suggested making sure visits are held at convenient times for families, such as not during holidays.
- Be aware of other pressures on families. Educators should keep in mind that families are often trying to navigate other unfamiliar systems, such as housing and healthcare, Martinez-Keddy said. Those additional layers may add to a family's stress so educators should be compassionate about that, the panelists said.
Also, if families don't have established family and friend support systems, schools might invite community advocates familiar with the family to the home visit, Richardson said.
- Don't let language be a barrier. Even if the family and educator speak different languages, the home visit can still proceed, several panelists said. Ideally, someone from the district who speaks the family's language should be invited to translate, said Gary.
But, Gary said, that's not always possible, as some districts serve families across more than 100 different languages.
In those cases, schools might use translation services or technology to help with conversations. Regardless, educators should keep their messages simple and direct, Gary said. Richardson added that teachers should avoid education jargon.
Richardson and Martinez-Keddy said even if language is a barrier, connections can still be made by sharing photos or food, and through body language and nonverbal gestures. "It is about building a relationship," Martinez-Keddy said.
- Go as a learner. In older models of home visits, educators would come to a home as the expert charged with informing the family about certain education-related programs. But the new approach is for educators to be a listener and a learner, Martinez-Keddy said.
"I think there's a balance between being aware and being authentic and being respectful," Martinez-Keddy said.