The immigrant share of the United States population has increased significantly, from 5 percent in the mid-twentieth century to over 14 percent in 2015, yet school segregation among immigrant communities has persisted. A Furman Center study of New York City schools found that non-native Black, Hispanic, and Asian students “tend to be more racially isolated than their native-born counterparts, even after controlling for differences in language skills and income.” Another study by Arizona State University researchers Jeanne M. Powers and Margarita Pivovarova also highlights the extent of segregation between U.S.-born and non-U.S. born students. Powers and Pivovarova found that “the average immigrant student attended a school where 19% of her peers were immigrants, while on average, U.S.-born students attended schools in which only 6% of the students were immigrants. Thirty-nine percent of U.S.-born students attended schools that did not enroll any immigrant students.”
Furthermore, segregation among immigrant students persists despite evidence that having immigrant peers can increase the likelihood of high school completion for U.S.-born students. Attending segregated schools can also have negative consequences for immigrant students and has been linked to lower grades, especially for Latine students.
While across the country districts continue to struggle to integrate multilingual learners and their families, the Roaring Fork School District (RFSD) exemplifies several best practices for integration that center family voice. Situated in Colorado’s Roaring Fork Valley, The Roaring Fork School District is home to a burgeoning Latine community. Like many other districts and neighborhoods around the country, over the past half century, the district’s share of nonwhite immigrant students has increased dramatically. The school district reflects the racial diversity of the Valley, with roughly 60 percent of its 6,000 students identifying as Latine and the remaining 40 percent as Anglo. Roaring Fork’s robust Latine immigrant community has prompted the school district to make meaningful efforts towards linguistic and cultural integration, which has also been made possible by the wraparound services that the district provides to immigrant students and their families through a partner nonprofit.
Rob Stein, the superintendent of the Roaring Fork District, said that their success in integrating their Latine and Anglo communities lies in their approach, which centers on “a willingness to listen to and trust our families and try to expand our relationships and expand our communications.” In a district where roughly 50 percent of families do not speak English and where 45 percent of students qualify for free and reduced lunch, there can be several obstacles to amplifying parent voices.
Shortly after Rob Stein joined the district in 2013, his team embarked on an in-depth engagement process, known as a visioning process, in which they asked the community what they wanted from their schools and what goals they had for their students. District leaders organized sixteen meetings with nearly 1,500 parents, teachers, students, and community members across the three towns that comprise the district, holding the same meeting twice in both Spanish and English to amplify Spanish-speaking voices. This practice was intentional. “Often what happens when you do a bilingual setting with interpreters, [is that,] still, English and whiteness are the dominant modes. And so that was a way to sort of balance it out,” Stein explained.
In order to disabuse themselves of potential stereotypes about what immigrant parents value, Roaring Fork district leaders also captured qualitative data on the different priorities of Spanish-speaking immigrant families. The visioning process’s engagement and collection is ongoing. Almost all schools in the district have a Spanish-language night or a Latine parent night oriented around topics in which Spanish-speaking families communicated interest.
In 2018, the team evaluated the effects of their visioning work, and discovered that Spanish-speaking families felt more included because of the practices they had begun to implement, including facilitating meetings in Spanish and organizing the Latine parent nights.
Much of the district’s success in developing relationships with Spanish-speaking families stems from the work of Brianda Cervantes, the district’s school–community organizer. RFSD hired their first school–community organizer in 2016 to support the Riverview School, after local nonprofit the Manaus Fund paid for the position; though funded externally, Cervantes is an employee of the school district. Cervantes, who graduated from law school in Mexico before she immigrated to the Valley, became involved in her son’s school, Riverview School, to provide feedback on the dual-language program. Then-school–community organizer Janeth Niebla empowered Cervantes to apply for her position, despite the fact that she did not speak English at the time. Cervantes remembers how her life changed when she connected with Niebla: “She was giving me hope, tools, trusting me, validating me.”
In her first act of engagement as school–community organizer, Brianda Cervantes taught a leadership course to students on how to organize and involve themselves in school decision-making. She used her relationships with students to connect with many Spanish-speaking families. Early on, however, Cervantes encountered cultural barriers among Latine families that contributed to low parent participation. “Our culture has taught us that you don’t go and you don’t have the right to go to a teacher or to a principal, and let them know how to do their work,” Cervantes explained.
Stein echoed Cervantes’s sentiments. When he spent time in Mexico and Central America, he found that family engagement did not cross the schoolhouse door. This made Cervantes’s work—cultivating relationships with families and pushing the district to be more inclusive—a necessity. By coaching parents one-on-one on how to advocate for their children, walking them through using public comments during school board meetings, and helping them set up meetings with their child’s teacher and principal, Cervantes increased parent involvement dramatically. By the end of her time at Riverview School, Latine parents comprised 50 percent of the Parent–Teacher Association. Cervantes encouraged other districts to hire community organizers in order to build strong relationships with their families and ensure that all parents have a voice in their child’s education, regardless of their language.
Although Stein admitted that he often finds himself defensive amidst the newfound pressure from organizers and parents, he recognized that “you can’t just be like the top of an organizational hierarchy and change the whole system. I don’t know how else to effect change without organizing, without organized parents and organized students pushing us because the people who already have the power are not exactly looking for ways to shift our focus.”
Organizing Latine families who do not speak English required investing in interpreters, creating bilingual spaces, expanding communication materials, and implementing culturally and linguistically diverse education (CLDE) programming for students.
While 60 percent of Roaring Fork’s students are Latine, the vast majority whose families speak Spanish, this community is not a monolith. Over a decade ago, most immigrants in Roaring Fork were from Mexico, but in the past six to ten years, many Latine families in the community have immigrated from Central American countries such as El Salvador and Honduras. Brianda Cervantes found that although most of them spoke Spanish, some primarily spoke indigenous languages or different dialects that made the district’s family communications in Spanish difficult to understand. She realized that the district had been targeting their communication to Mexican families and advocated for simplifying Spanish language materials so that Central American families could better understand.
After the visioning processes, district leaders realized they could do more to meet the needs of Spanish-speaking families and asked the Manaus fund to bring Cervantes’ work district-wide. Once she began her role as community organizer for the district, she started pushing to have an interpreter at all district-wide meetings. As a result of her advocacy, every district-wide meeting is either completely bilingual or has an interpreter. The Family Advisory Council, which Cervantes co-hosts with Family Resource Center executive director Anna Cole, brings together parents, staff, and community members to oversee the district. In order to make these meetings accessible, they help with gas, provide dinner, and even have stipends for families who would otherwise be unable to participate. Cervantes speaks only in Spanish, while Cole speaks in English with an interpreter present for each. As a result of these efforts, Latine parental participation in the Family Advisory Council has increased to 40 percent, much higher than before Cervantes joined. While she admits that the new system frustrated some Anglo parents, who were not used to needing to wait for an interpreter so that they could understand and respond to others, many other Anglo families have been excited to have their children in diverse schools and even work to gain Spanish skills themselves through bilingual tables.
At Council meetings, parents can choose to sit at a table where conversation is exclusively in Spanish, exclusively in English, or bilingual. Both Spanish-speaking and English-speaking families sit at the bilingual table to practice and interact. Beyond these efforts, Cervantes has continued her advocacy through a series of conversations about language access and langage justice, pushing the district to be more inclusive of Spanish speakers.
Roaring Fork’s work empowering Spanish-speaking students is made possible by their culturally and linguistically diverse education (CLDE) programming. Over the past eight years, Roaring Fork has revamped their language programming from a pull-out program, where multilingual learners are removed from the classroom to receive instruction, to a comprehensive, language-rich environment where all students develop English language skills regardless of their household language.
A study of English language learner pull-out programming in Arizona showed that pull-out English language programming can segregate ELL and non-ELL students within schools. CLDE avoids this by taking an asset-based approach that utilizes students’ first language, implements culturally-relevant curriculum, and engages parents and community members, among other core components. The district’s goal is to “ensure that students maintain their first language and add a second, including both native English speakers and native speakers of other languages.” Some of their schools offer dual language programming and Spanish language arts instruction, and all Roaring Fork schools offer literacy based English language development as part of CLDE programming.
As other districts have struggled to engage multi-language learners over distance learning, Stein maintained that while most students returned to in-person learning in October, the 15 percent of their student population who chose to continue online schooling demonstrated as much growth in their end-of-year assessment data as did their peers in in-person learning.
Despite these successes, the challenges that bilingual students in Roaring Fork faced during this school year were numerous. The Latine community was disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, with higher disease incidence rates within the community. A study that used language as a proxy for immigration status found that non-English speakers were less likely to be tested for COVID-19, yet were over four times more likely to test positive, at a rate of 18.6 percent compared to 4 percent for English speakers. Many students had less privacy to study, some did not have access to technology, and although the district worked hard to improve access, many students had to help provide for their families, which made focusing on school difficult. Additionally, because some families in Roaring Fork are undocumented, they were denied access to government assistance, including stimulus checks, even when their children were U.S. citizens.
This made the work of Kelly Medina, the family liaison program coordinator, and her colleagues at the Family Resource Center (FRC) even more vital. The Family Resource Center is a school-based nonprofit, so they receive Title III and Medicaid funding as well as funding from other sources. Several years ago, the Family Resource Center was an administrative building where families were supposed to come, but Rob Stein found that few families came. One of Stein’s first actions when he assumed his role as superintendent was to bring the resources to where the families were. He decentralized the FRC and placed family liaisons in schools, increasing the number of liaisons over five years to provide every school with a bilingual family liaison.
Today, Roaring Fork has thirteen bilingual, bicultural family liaisons whose responsibilities include family development and case management to help families move out of crisis. As case managers, they provide resources and referrals for families who need support by guiding them through systems like health care, public assistance, and school enrollment, and even serve as an intervention program for Child Protective Services. Family liaisons are integrated into the school system and are present in multi-tiered support meetings to help provide resources for students going through the special education evaluation process or struggling with behavioral mental health. Liaisons often serve as trusted adults during recess for elementary school students and lead peer groups to mentor students in middle and high school.
When COVID-19 hit Roaring Fork, families who once needed assistance advocating for their child’s education now needed support after losing their jobs, internet access and technology to allow for distance learning, and help paying their bills. As the government denied services to undocumented families, Roaring Fork’s Family Resource Center worked to fill those gaps and provide services to all families regardless of immigration status. Medina said of the staff, “I will always be grateful to see how much they hustled and how they were just there for families when it was during a really scary time.” This work included making relief funds from community nonprofits available to undocumented families so that they could obtain rental assistance, an internet connection, or support with utility bills, in addition to their standard referrals for dental services.
The staff’s diversity is one of the greatest assets to the team as 80 percent of the families they work with are Latine, many of whom are Spanish-speaking. Medina asserted that liaisons often make an effort to learn and speak the family’s dialect to make the process easier for families and help build trust.
Equipping families to advocate for themselves is crucial, but Medina observed that assumptions are often still made about immigrant families in day-to-day meetings. To combat this, when family liaisons sit in meetings with teachers, principals, and counselors talking about families, “we’re really quick to say ‘that’s not okay to say that about families without them being present,’ or ‘why are we even having this meeting without the family here?’” Medina explained.
Her work is deeply personal. When Medina was a student in the Roaring Fork School District, her family experienced homelessness during her junior year of high school, forcing her to work to support her mom instead of applying for college and scholarships. Medina began working as a family liaison eight years ago, driven by the belief that had her mom had access to a family liaison, there “could have been a really different outcome for me and my sister when we were in school.”
Building trust with families is difficult in an “education system [that] historically has harmed families just as much as social services,” Medina contended. Yet, despite the biases and socioeconomic challenges that the FRC staff confronts, Medina said she experiences the most joy “ when families feel like they have ownership. They are like, No, I’m coming to this meeting. And I’m going to say what I have to say, and this is what I’m worried about. That to me is so awesome, because I see my mom in them and knowing that my mom didn’t have that, and that we had something to do with helping that parent feel confident is awesome.”
Integration Strategies that Empower Immigrant Families
Roaring Fork’s practices demonstrate a deep commitment to empowering their Latine families. While many of the changes that the district has undertaken have required many resources, they are necessary for creating equity. For other districts with large immigrant populations and non-native English speakers and families, Roaring Fork can provide these main takeaways:
- Community visioning that incorporates family voice is crucial for success. A visioning process is an important first step in ensuring that district leaders understand the priorities of immigrant families and begin working towards them.
- Incorporate school-community organizers to advocate with families. Cultural barriers can be a deterrent for immigrant families’ involvement in schools. A designated staff member who can empower families and advocate with them is pivotal.
- Ensure that spaces and communications are multilingual. Non-native English speakers are not a monolith. While districts sometimes assume that communication materials are adequate, families who speak different dialects often struggle to access translated materials. Moreover, rather than just providing interpreters that maintain English as the dominant language, when meetings are bilingual, immigrant families are made to feel that they belong.
- Connect families to wraparound services. In communities with high populations of low-income and undocumented families, children may struggle to learn without basic services. These services can include having a family resource center like Roaring Fork’s, or even just having bilingual staff members who can connect families with resources in the community.
header image source: Roaring Fork school district facebook