Any number of reasons may compel an individual or family to move to another country—war, persecution, job opportunities or to be closer to family, for example. There are several terms used to refer to individuals who are seeking residence in the United States, but the distinctions are important:
- Immigrants are lawful permanent residents of the US who intend to reside permanently in the US.
- Refugees have fled their own country because their safety is at risk. Refugees have a right to international protection, and this status is granted outside of the US.
- Asylum seekers have also left their country because they are fleeing human rights violations and persecution, but they have not yet been legally recognized as refugees and are waiting to receive a decision on their asylum claim. This status is granted inside the US.
- Migrants are individuals who have chosen to stay outside their country of origin who are not asylum seekers or refugees—they may be seeking work opportunities or want to be closer to their families, or they could be in danger if they went home but do not fit the legal definition of a refugee.
United Way’s community schools each has its own unique approach to supporting students from other countries, targeting their specific needs. Here are just a few examples of what goes on in three of our community schools:
Community schools will hold new student orientation sessions where leadership and community school directors welcome students and families to the school and provide an opportunity to connect the family to supports, including families who have just arrived from other countries.
“We work with district liaisons and community agencies to include an interpreter (if needed) and their organizational case-worker if appropriate,” said Meghan Easter, community school director at Pfeiffer-Burleigh Elementary. “During these meetings we identify the best method to communicate with our English language learner (ELL) families, which our ELL teachers use to communicate throughout the school year. This meeting often allows us to sign students up for mobile dentist, Second Harvest Food Bank programming, access community closet needs, discuss attendance expectations and introduce families to school personnel.”
Pfeiffer-Burleigh Elementary leverages the help of Language Line, an interpreter service they received access to from their Corporate Partner, Erie Insurance. This provides staff with a way to communicate with families to address immediate concerns. Other community schools often use Google Translate or other apps to communicate with ELL families.
“A mother came to my office the other day with transportation questions,” said Amy Grande, community school director at McKinley Elementary. “Mom had an app open on her phone. When she spoke into it, it would translate to English so I could read the text, and when I spoke into it, it would translate it to text in her language. What would normally be a 5-minute conversation was 25 minutes, but we were able to communicate, so that’s a win!”
McKinley Elementary is the host site for an English language program run through the Quality of Life Learning Center. Adults in the program learn English and participate in a job training component, and the children receive homework help. Many of the families enrolled are McKinley families.
East Middle School runs the Newcomer Academy, which helps with English language acquisition and also makes sure students are becoming comfortable and acclimated to the school.
“We often see that pairing up students that are able to speak the same languages to be able to mentor and lead our students who are brand new to East has been beneficial to help them feel included,” said Rachel Pierce, community school director at East Middle School.
On the Erie School District level—Michelle Fiorelli is the district’s Supervisor of Early Learning and English Language Learner programs and liaises with the Pennsylvania Department of Education and United Way’s community school directors to make sure that the district’s ELL program is meeting guidelines and that students have access to all the supports they need, from the government and within the schools.
“In my first full year in my current role, it has become clear that assisting refugees and all our students and families from other countries requires teamwork and collaboration,” Michelle said. “I have been thankful for the support from United Way and the work they do for our students and families. The community school directors design new student orientations based on their individual schools’ needs and offerings. United Way assisted with coat and boot collections for refugees and other students in need at their school. Family nights, parent and student events and activities are always inclusive of refugee families which assist with their cultural assimilation to their new communities. The schools have gained so much from their partnership with United Way.”