By Rich Andre, Immigration Impact
School is back in session. For many states and localities across the country, that means welcoming newly arrived immigrant and refugee youth into the classroom. There will be increased need for student support this fall, given that the United States has resettled more than 76,000 Afghans and 100,000 Ukrainians over the last year as a result of Operation Allies Welcome and Uniting for Ukraine, respectively.
Regardless of where they’re from, immigrant and refugee youth often face language barriers, digital equity issues, and the overall challenge of adjusting to education in a new country. How can states and localities address these challenges and facilitate successful integration into the classroom and the community?
The Refugee Advocacy Lab and International Rescue Committee dove into this topic in a recent webinar. The conversation featured two states with long histories of immigrant and refugee integration: the Michigan Department of Education and Granite School District in Salt Lake County, Utah. Two core themes emerged from the conversation: the need for coordination across stakeholders within and outside government and the need to provide sustained support for newcomer students, before and after they enroll.
In Michigan, school enrollment and student integration rely on a strong partnership between the Department of Education (DoE) and the Office of Global Michigan (OGM), which houses the state’s Refugee Services program. This partnership was crucial following the U.S. military evacuation in Afghanistan, after which Michigan resettled approximately 1,800 Afghans in a single year, on top of other refugees and asylees.
Critically, Michigan agencies mapped out which school districts were most impacted by new Afghan arrivals and held monthly meetings with identified points of contact to coordinate resources and information. These state-and-local partnerships helped identify the pain points Afghans experienced, including having trouble enrolling their children midway through the school year, students not getting credit for schooling in their home countries, and the need for socio-emotional support for youth impacted by conflict. The state is now leveraging those same partnerships and practices to welcome the sizable Ukrainian population coming through the Uniting for Ukraine program.
Utah’s Granite School District has similarly strong relationships with the region’s two resettlement agencies: International Rescue Committee and Catholic Community Services of Utah. The district is home to an increasingly dynamic student population, speaking over 100 languages, ranging from Spanish and Arabic to Swahili and Burmese.
To respond to the increasing diversity of the student body, the district launched the Tumaini Welcome and Transition Program, which provides support to foreign students both before they start school (ensuring they have internet access, a laptop, the bus schedule, etc.) and as they acclimate to their new educational environment. Follow-through is key, and school resource teams monitor newcomer students weekly, then monthly, and maintain regular contact with the families to address the challenges that arise over time.
In a more recent development, Texas Governor Abbott has been bussing more than 6,000 asylum seekers, including children, to Washington DC and New York City. The New York City Department of Education now expects more than 1,000 asylum seekers ages three and up to enroll in the city’s public schools this fall. In response, the City launched “Project Open Arms,” a multi-agency plan to enroll asylum seekers in schools. The plan includes sections on interagency collaboration, language access, socio-emotional support, and more, echoing priorities seen in Michigan and Utah.
As schools get into full-swing for the fall, collaboration and coordination across departments— both at a state and local level—will prove critical to ensure that every student can learn and grow.