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At Journey’s End, a Warmer Welcome

Researcher Studies How Schools Can Better Integrate Young Unaccompanied Migrants

By Chris Carroll

Student raises hand in classroom

A UMD education researcher is studying institutional supports and other factors that can contribute to a sense of belonging for newly arrived immigrant youth at local school districts.

Photo by iStock

Thousands of unaccompanied immigrant youths arrive in Maryland each year, and even school district personnel charged with helping them succeed in their new lives sometimes can’t see beyond what they lack.

“These kids are more than their levels of English proficiency,” said Sophia Rodriguez, an assistant professor in the College of Education who researches educational equity and inclusion for mostly high school-age newcomers to the U.S. from Central America. They often arrive alone or have been long separated from their families.

Defining them simply by their educational deficits can lead to excesses like marathon English-as-a-second-language classes that isolate them socially and may cost them valuable contextual language-learning opportunities, as well as opportunities to prepare for college and careers, she said.

Rodriguez was awarded $350,000 as a William T. Grant Scholar this year to study ways to reduce structural barriers to educational equality for these youths in three Maryland school districts—a project she plans to expand to schools around the mid-Atlantic region in coming years.

In her three-part study, she will identify how newcomer immigrant youth define their educational needs and sense of belonging; investigate how the immigrant-serving school districts manage and respond to the educational and belonging needs of newcomer immigrant youth; and identify the role of formal and informal community-based partnerships with the three districts in increasing or hindering newcomer youths’ educational access and sense of belonging.

She’ll first survey an array of district-level and school personnel to learn how they attend to the needs of immigrant students, as well as their levels of awareness about the impact of immigration enforcement. She’ll also survey newcomer youths to identify mechanisms that increase their sense of belonging, and eventually engage in observational and interview-based data collection.

She already has some recommendations: hiring social workers along with more bilingual aides and other staff to help students navigate not only classrooms but often-complex school enrollment procedures; protecting students at the district level from rising anti-immigrant sentiment; and training attention on the trauma children can experience during migration—from enduring or witnessing violence to inhumane detention procedures in the U.S.

“It’s also about honoring who they are and their cultures, and acknowledging the assets that they bring,” she said. “They have a transnational perspective most students don’t. The migrant experience teaches you a lot.”



Schools & Departments:

College of Education

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