Education and advocacy leaders convene to discuss supports for immigrant youth and families

Californians Together hosted its annual Statewide Convening for the Support of Immigrant and Refugee Students virtually on Feb. 28 with leaders from school, professional and community organizations discussing resources and state-funded programs that address the needs of immigrant and refugee populations.

Ruth Barajas, Californians Together project director for English Learner Legacy and Leadership Initiative and Support for Immigrant Students, noted that California is one of the most diverse states in the country. As many as 10 percent of students are foreign-born, but about half of students statewide have one or more parent who is foreign-born. And 25 percent of children live in mixed family status households where one member may be undocumented, she said.

With so much global civil unrest over the last few years and natural disasters that have drastically impacted children in several countries, as well as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the influx of women and children fleeing the region, there is no better time to double down on efforts to support immigrant youth, said Californians Together Executive Director Martha Hernandez.

“We must not lose sight of how these ongoing challenges have impacted the immigrant students and families in our school communities, but we must also recognize that we are here today because we believe in the strength and assets of our immigrants and the boundless potential of immigrant children, and those young people who have come unaccompanied to this country,” Hernandez said. “We believe that together, we can and will strengthen our schools and communities to create the vision we want for our immigrant children.”

This work is a long time coming. Three speakers explained their own experiences as immigrants entering California schools as students and as parents. The discussion included the bias they faced from school and district staff, and for Vanessa Tahay representing GetLit, how she was often punished for experiencing language and cultural barriers rather than be uplifted.

Californians Together launched the Support for Immigrant & Refugee Students Project in 2017 to ensure immigrant youth had access to safe and supportive learning environments. To accomplish this goal, the organization has developed workshops and resources for educators, created regional networks for school district and county leaders, and connected schools and families with information and resources from statewide and national organizations who work to support the education, health, well-being and rights of immigrant and refugee students and families.

The project includes two components. Phase I lessons focus on building community and empathy among students so that they can feel safe to communicate their thoughts and feelings and participating in literature-based discussions centered on key socioemotional themes experienced by this group of students. Materials for Phase II — Supporting Resilience and Social Emotional Learning — are designed to work concurrently with Phase I to equip educators with instructional practices to provide students a foundation in social-emotional well-being. Applying a trauma-informed approach, the goal is to facilitate or begin the healing process among students who experience trauma. All curriculum materials, toolkits and other resources are available to download here.

Programming and revenue streams available

Melissa Stafford Jones, director of the state’s Children Child and Youth Behavioral Health Initiative, asked the audience what the California Health and Human Services Agency needs to understand to support the mental health and well-being of immigrant students. Responses indicated a need for bilingual counselors and social workers— especially to support children and families speaking Dari, Pashto, various Indigenous and other less common languages.

The Children and Youth Behavioral Health Initiative, announced in July 2021, will address those needs and more, Jones said. With a $4.4 billion investment to enhance, expand and redesign the systems that support behavioral health for children and youth, the goal is to reimagine mental health and emotional well-being for all students and families in California by delivering equitable, timely and accessible behavioral health services and supports that are also linguistically, culturally and developmentally appropriate.

Community schools can also play a role in supporting immigrant youth, explained Steve Zimmer, California Department of Education deputy superintendent of public instruction. The California Community Schools Partnership Program, a $3 billion investment included in the last state budget, recognizes that immigrant youth and their families have many assets that they bring to the table, but they also arrive to school with some of the deepest gaps in resources.

In addition to ensuring families have the supports and resources they need, community schools also require educators to shift to an asset-based mindset with students in order to ensure students feel safe and valued. (Learn more about the CCSPP Framework, which details the key roles and responsibilities of local, county, regional and state partners; best practices; four cornerstone commitments and more.)

Moving forward, it is critical that youth be directly engaged at the school- and district-level across all grades, Zimmer said.

“This will be a better initiative if we’re guided by their vision,” he continued. “We’re going to be challenging [local educational agencies] to really tear down the existing model of engagement and really be looking not only at our technical assistance, but in how we do assessment and evaluation of genuine and authentic power sharing, and genuine and authentic assets-driven engagement with our families. Engagement is something that’s very easy to check a box on. It’s much harder to really open yourself up to sharing power.”