This month’s guest blogger: Laura Gardner is a social worker and the founder of Gardner & Associates: Immigrants, Refugees, and Schools ( which provides training, technical assistance, and consultative services to school districts and other organizations on a variety of topics related to social work, education, immigration, and refugee resettlement. Laura worked for BRYCS from 2006-2012 where she managed technical assistance to Refugee School Impact Grantees.

After working for BRYCS with Refugee School Impact Grantees, I worked in the central office of a large school district where I managed family and community engagement for our English Learner, immigrant, and refugee communities. Having worked in different systems and at various levels has provided me with multiple points of view. These multiple perspectives continue to drive my work at finding ways immigrants and refugees can become more civically engaged with their local school systems in order to support and advocate for students.

According to one model, there are four levels of immigrant parent involvement in schools: cultural survivors, cultural learners, cultural connectors, and cultural leaders. Visually, this model is shaped like a pyramid and closely resembles the stages of immigrant integration. “Cultural survivors” are often new to the country and their priority is meeting their families’ basic needs. They typically have little time to learn about how to navigate their local school system. “Cultural learners” begin to learn about how schools work in this country, but usually require the help of interpreters and translated documents as they navigate the system.“Cultural connectors” develop greater familiarity with the school system and often share information and opportunities with “cultural survivors” and “cultural learners.” Finally, “cultural leaders” are leaders in their respective immigrant communities and advocate for the needs of immigrant students and families, including those in the three earlier stages.

It is important that school information and programming for refugee and immigrant parents be geared towards the stage of parent involvement that they are in. The information below about parental rights, opportunities to join committees, and so on is not appropriate for newly arrived refugees and other cultural survivors. The following information is primarily geared towards refugee community leaders and other cultural leaders as well as refugee resettlement staff.

Parental Rights in Public Schools

There are numerous rights and responsibilities of parents with children in U.S. schools. Districts typically put out a parent handbook at the beginning of each school year that outlines these rights. It is a good idea for refugee resettlement staff and refugee and immigrant community leaders to keep copies of these handbooks around for when questions arise or there is a need to appeal a decision made by a district administrator.

A few rights worth mentioning:

  • All parents have the right to receive information in a language they understand. For example, this could include information shared in parent teacher conferences, information sent home in a child’s backpack, and so on. This is a federal civil rights obligation. In 2015, the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice released a joint Fact Sheet on “Information for Limited English Proficient Parents and for Schools and School Districts that Communicate with Them” in English and a number of other languages. In addition, there is BRYCS’ publication on Federal Requirements to Provide Interpretation & Translation in Schools. Sometimes school districts are not aware that they must provide these services and immigrant and refugee parents and community leaders may need to advocate for these services. School districts may not rely solely on Refugee School Impact dollars, or any federal funding source, for all interpretation and translation needs because federal funds may not be used to fund activities to implement a local school district’s civil rights obligations.
  • All parents and community members have the right to weigh in on school board policies and regulations. Every public school district has a school board and every school board has a process in place for developing policies and regulations, which includes collecting parent and community input. For example, school boards seek input on policies related to bullying, school climate, cultural competency, equity, and so on. There are usually a couple of options for parents and community members wishing to provide input – typically online or in person. An online option may be difficult for non-English speakers and/or those without access to technology. Providing in-person feedback through an interpreter during a school board meeting may be easier and frankly, more effective. Remember, it is your right to request an interpreter to speak in front of the school board.
  • All parents and community members have the right to provide input on the school district’s budget and how funds are being spent. Every school district has an annual process for developing their budget. Nearly every district receives some federal and state funding, but usually around half of a district’s budget comes from local funds (typically, from property taxes). It may be somewhat difficult to have an impact on the overall amount of money a district has to work with, but it is quite easy to share one’s opinion on what it should be spent on. It is important to take the time to learn how the school district budget is developed in your area because you can always try asking for additional staff such as teachers for English Learners, interpreters, school counselors, or whatever your refugee or immigrant community is in need of. Asking for what you need does not guarantee you will get it, but you must start somewhere. Whether you are in a small district where the budget is in the thousands or a large district where it is in the billions, input from resettlement staff and cultural leaders can truly make a difference. Input related to a district’s budget is usually provided through public budget hearings or by writing letters or emails. As stated above, individuals have the right to provide their input in the language they are most comfortable in.

Other Opportunities for Refugee Parents and Community Leaders

There are other opportunities for refugee and immigrant parents and community leaders to engage with their local school system. For example:

  • Curriculum Committees: Many, if not most, school districts put together committees to review curricula and typically these committees include parents or community members. Refugee resettlement staff or community leaders may apply to join any committee they wish, but international perspectives can be particularly impactful on social studies (including history, geography, global studies, etc.), language learning, and literature.
  • Diverse Workforce Committees: The majority of teachers in the U.S. continue to be white and female,[i] even while student bodies continue to diversify. Refugee resettlement staff and community leaders can be instrumental in helping human resources departments tap into the strengths of their communities. Most districts are desperately looking to hire more multilingual, multicultural employees. Refugees and immigrants have so much to offer school districts, with their diverse skills and life experiences. For example, a school district could hire a French-speaking refugee or immigrant to teach students French or a refugee from Southeast Asia who to teach history. (Refugees who were teachers in their home countries will likely have to start out as paraprofessionals while they deal with additional coursework or recertification, but it’s much easier to gain employment as a teacher if you are already employed by the school system in another capacity.)
  • School Improvement Committees: Most schools have in place some type of “school improvement plan.” It may be called something different depending on the district, but these are plans that schools put together to create goals towards improving students’ academic achievement. These committees often brainstorm ways to increase family engagement and what better way to gather ideas than to ask the parents themselves? These committees are always stronger with the voices of parents and community members.
  • Parent/Community Committees: Some districts have committees specifically for parents and community members. These committees may meet with board members or the superintendent and/or may be more of a work group or task force dedicated to a particular topic. These types of parent groups tend to lack diversity, and refugees and immigrants would provide a helpful, much needed perspective. For example, a committee of parents could be tasked with collecting parental input on a proposed redistricting plan. Without refugee and immigrant parent leaders present, this information would not likely get to the communities that would be most impacted by such changes.

It is also important to note that in the 2018-19 school year, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) will be implemented at the district level. ESSA reauthorized the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and replaced No Child Left Behind (NCLB). It was signed into law on December 10, 2015 and states have since submitted accountability plans to the U.S. Education Department. ESSA has increased emphasis on family and community engagement, particularly with those learning English, so it is a perfect time for refugee parents, community leaders, and Refugee School Impact staff to get more involved. It is crucial to get involved in supporting refugee and immigrant students and families at the district level, such as by speaking at school board meetings or sharing communities’ needs when budgets are created. Ultimately, these actions will help contribute to more civic engagement and integration of refugee and immigrant families into communities.