Less than three years ago, Jibril Ahmed, now 19, arrived in the U.S. from Kenya, with his parents, brother, and sister seeking a better life. On his first day at LEAP High School in St. Paul, Minnesota, Jibril, whose family is Somali, felt like everyone was looking at him, and it made him nervous. He used the few English phrases he knew to get through the day: “Hey, how you doing, man?” and “I’m fine.”
Fast forward to now and Jibril is finishing high school with plans to go to college, and his English has improved by leaps and bounds. With the help of his teachers, after-school tutoring, and summer school, he’s caught up to his peers and thrived — in the classroom and on the soccer field, where he’s moved up from the freshman team to the senior team. “I started everything in the lower level and now I’m here,” he says. “I just keep working hard and improve more.”
Jibril’s story is a success story by any count, and it’s not uncommon among immigrant students. There are approximately 840,000 immigrant students in the U.S. — some with families and others without — and more than 4.6 million English learners, according to the U.S. Department of Education. And those numbers are expected to grow as more immigrants reach the U.S.
It can be intimidating to enroll your child in a foreign school system. Every family new to the U.S. won’t be fortunate enough to live near a school like LEAP, which focuses solely on educating asylum-seekers, refugees, and immigrants, both documented and undocumented. But parents should know that despite the stress of moving to a new country, often learning a new language, and entering a school system that can be very different than the one they knew, their kids can be successful in school and catch up to their peers — oftentimes even surpassing them. Despite the obstacles immigrant children may face in school, research shows most are doing just as well as their non-immigrant peers and are even better behaved in class and more likely to enjoy school.
If you’re new to the U.S., here are some tips to help your child thrive in school, no matter their English fluency or immigration status.
Know your rights and responsibilities
The most important thing for parents to know is that they and their children do not need to have legal immigration status in order to enroll in public schools in the U.S. It is illegal to deny any child a free, public school education. Students are also entitled to a public school education in the U.S. regardless of English fluency and physical or learning disabilities.
If you ever face pushback from a school about enrolling your child, speak up and look for help from the community if needed. Oftentimes, there are community cultural, religious, and advocacy organizations to help immigrants navigate issues like this. The Esperanza Immigration Rights Project, for instance, can do this type of work in California.
But there are some things parents need to do to ensure their child gets enrolled. First, they must provide some documentation, such as vaccination records and documents showing they live in the district. Schools should accept vaccination records from other countries, but if you don’t have them, you can get your child immunized in the U.S.
To prove a child’s residency in the district, Julie Sugarman, an education policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute, recommends showing things like utility bills. If you don’t own your home or have your name on a rental agreement, there are other alternatives as well, such as an affidavit signed by a notary.
The school may also ask for proof of a child’s age. Birth certificates, passports, or other documents will serve this purpose. If you don’t have those, you can present family keepsakes, like a Bible that lists all the family members and their dates of birth.
Find support for English learners
Some school districts, especially in urban areas, have schools like LEAP in St. Paul, which specializes in newly arrived immigrant students learning English. The Coral Way K-8 Center in Miami, for instance, was one of the first successful bilingual programs in the U.S. for younger children, while the Internationals Network supports schools serving newcomers in several cities, including the San Francisco Bay Area, Washington D.C., and New York. Ask your district’s central office if a school like this exists where you are.
Natasha Warikoo, a professor of sociology at Tufts University and an expert on racial and ethnic inequality in education, recommends also finding the office for English language learners
(ELL) or bilingual education. The department may have a different name depending on the district, but most districts should have one.
Warikoo also recommends that parents consider two-way dual-language immersion programs if they exist in their district. These programs combine two groups of students who speak different languages at home, one being English. Students work together and speak both languages at school, so they all become bilingual.
Your home language is an asset
Immigrant parents sometimes assume their children should speak English all the time even if it means forgetting their first language, but experts say that staying fluent in the child’s first language will actually help them learn English. “Supporting the first language is powerful for a child to develop fluency in English, and it ensures they don’t lose the cultural context,” Warikoo said. “Parents shouldn’t feel their child has to be speaking [English] 100 percent all day every day in order for them to be successful.”
You may also find additional resources for English language learners on websites like Colorín Colorado, a bilingual site with information and resources for educators and families.
Be aware of cultural differences
Another important thing to remember is to advocate for your student. If you have a question, concern, or issue, let the school know. Typically, the school will respond.
Research shows that students are more likely to be successful in school if their families are involved in their education in the U.S., but many immigrant families come from cultures where parents do not get involved in school. Rosa Miyashiro, a counselor at LEAP High School, says she often educates parents on this aspect of education in the U.S., and it can be crucial to a child’s success.
“American education really expects parents to know how to handle things, what to do at home, how to help the students and advocate for them,” Miyashiro says. “Sometimes we need to teach them that it’s okay if they have a concern or question. You can contact us. If there is something we don’t know about your student, please tell us.”
Other things to note are differences in school discipline and expectations for students. Rose Santos, principal of LEAP High School, said some parents have advised her to hit their students if there is a behavior problem, a practice that is accepted in some cultures — but illegal in much of the U.S. and not considered an effective response to disciplinary issues.
“I say, ‘no, we can’t do that,’” says Santos. “We explain to the parents that they’re still in control. The kids don’t run the roost, even here in the U.S., but we don’t do that here.”
Parents are essential to education in the U.S.
Another expectation for parents is that their child must be in school a certain number of days. If you wish to travel to your home country for a longer period of time, it’s best to do it during the summer and winter breaks.
If they miss too many days of school, the student might be considered “truant,” meaning they are absent from school without permission. The consequences can be severe, depending on the district policy, and include having to do make-up classes on the weekends or participate in an after-school study program. In extreme cases, they could even be sent to juvenile court and the parents can lose custody of them.
That’s the unlikeliest situation, of course. As families become more familiar with their public school, it’s likely that they’ll learn the system and that the kids will be okay — and sometimes even better than that. Whether you’re from Barbados, Bangladesh, or Beijing, your child can still have the same chance for success as the kid from Brooklyn.