Since last January, at least 41,000 people have migrated to the Denver metro area. Denver has long been an attractive destination for recent migrants, but this significant number of newly arrived immigrants has created complex and novel challenges for the city. Part of what makes Denver attractive as a destination for newcomers is the city’s determination to provide support and safety for those who are living in the country without documentation. Although the metro area has been well-equipped to deal with the typical inflow of migrants, this recent and rapid influx of such a significant number of migrants has required both public and private institutions to respond quickly. Some of the most immediate and urgent needs include providing newly arrived migrants with basic accommodations like housing and food. An equally important, but perhaps less obvious, concern is ensuring children in newly arrived families have access to educational opportunities. Communities in the Denver metro area have had to quickly develop and implement strategies that ensure schools are able to manage the increase in volume of students who have recently arrived from other countries.

Navigating Institutions

Community members noted that one of the big challenges new immigrants face is acquainting themselves with institutions that are not necessarily user friendly. Navigating the public school system already presents challenges for long-time residents, but the difficulty of this task can be compounded by a lack of familiarity with how the public school system works in the United States. Sometimes, this lack of familiarity can result in a lack of engagement, leaving children in newly arrived families unenrolled and unaccounted for by the educational system. Several community members noted that integrating new residents into the public school system may require an active effort on the part of public officials and community liaisons. Community members noted that not only is it critical that newly arrived families are made aware of how to interact with the school system, they must feel empowered to be able to advocate for their children within the schools. Having the ability to advocate for their children’s needs may help newly arrived families experience community while also helping ensure that students of migrant families are able to acquire the resources they need to advance their education. One community member who had the experience of navigating universities as a first generation college attendee noted that having a helping hand during the early stages of interacting with school systems can help one feel as though they are a desired member of the community and not a burden. As he explained, many longtime residents have a pre-existing and somewhat intuitive familiarity with the educational institutions, but trying to navigate school systems without that experience can be alienating and somewhat intimidating. As he put it, “you already have to step into whatever you want to do educationally with this baseline level of knowledge of where something and someone is, and if you don’t, then it’s a huge mental barrier. Like, ‘oh, obviously you don’t want me here’.” Several community members noted that it is critical that recently arrived families feel like they are welcomed and accepted members of the community and this requires that they are not simply left to navigate foreign systems on their own. 

Not only are these newly arrived families encountering a new set of educational institutions, like American K-12 public schools, they also are encountering a new set of institutions which manage political life in their new home. Community members noted that it is important for recent immigrants to learn how to navigate political life in the United States and suggested that schools are a particularly useful vehicle for transmitting that type of knowledge. One former educator, who also had the experience of being a newly arrived migrant, noted that her experience shaped her awareness of the importance of teaching her community of students about democracy. As she put it, “I think schools have, I see it as an obligation, and its students have a right to learn how to engage in an inclusive democracy in order for them to be successful citizens and individuals.”

Not only can public schools put information regarding civic duties and privileges in the hands of young people who could very well live most of their lives in the United States, community members pointed out that students in schools are attached to others who may also benefit from encountering this knowledge and utilizing these resources. Public schools, because they often are so deeply embedded in community networks, are uniquely situated to provide critical information to many members of a community at once. One mother noted that her experience with Head Start helped her realize the importance of thinking of students in relation to other members of their community, as opposed to thinking of them as individual silos. As she put it, “As a former Head Start mom, I really believe in the Head Start model. I think it works really well. Every student is the extension of the immediate family but also a community and culture. Allowing that environment where we see them as the entire entity of a community is important. They’re representing a huge portion of people. That’s not to say we place pressure or weight on our students, but rather to say we should open up environments that are as supportive of their parents and family members as we are supportive of them.” 

For many community members, it is important that public schools serve as a site for civic education, so that newly arrived migrants can be made aware of the available means for participation in politics. Not only does providing a civic education provide the opportunity for students at public schools to understand the political system, it can allow entire communities to acquire widespread awareness of how they can exercise political power. Ensuring residents have the know-how to be effective participants in a democracy, suggested community members, is a necessary component of ensuring  new families feel fully incorporated in their community and school. 

Encountering New Culture – laws

Financial stressors can be particularly impactful on newly arrived families, making the pursuit of income paramount. In recognition of this, community members also noted that recent migrants may be unfamiliar with norms and laws regarding educational institutions that may not have been as prevalent or enforced in their home countries. For instance, it may be useful for some families to be made aware that in the United States, students have to attend school for a certain amount of time out of the year. Due to the country’s labor laws, there are restrictions on the types of work children can do and the ability of children to earn income in lieu of attending school regularly.  This dynamic makes it even more important for households to be made aware of the requirement of school attendance for those under 16 years old.

As a mother of a DPS student put it, “We need money to survive. To be able to get your basic necessities, you need money. At the same time, and I can’t say that I know the education systems in other countries. But knowing that in the United States, by law, you need to have your students enrolled and attending school is important. Going back to what should they know–they should know that by law their student needs to be going and attending school, and we have child labor laws and we’re hopeful that they’re followed. But it’s a hard thing because you’re not in that family’s shoes for you to come and dictate, ‘this is what you need to be doing.’ We can only advise them from the heart, and give them resources, and make them aware of what is available to them.” 

Linguistic justice

Although language barriers can make communication difficult, community members were clear that linguistic differences should not become an impediment to inclusion in the public school system. Schools in the metro area have largely focused their efforts on catering to students who speak Spanish. However, one interesting element of the recent uptick in migrants is the fact that it has included people who speak a plethora of different languages. Importantly, though, as several community members noted, the metro area has long had a wide array of languages present in the public school systems. Several former educators noted that this dynamic is particularly pronounced in Aurora, despite it also being quite prevalent in Denver proper. Enabling participation within the school system for those who speak languages other than English, according to one community member, is central to dismantling elements of colonialism and white supremacy within education. As she put it, “Everyone is expected to express themselves in a white standard, and not seeing students’ voices and cultures reflected especially within the linguistic components of school I think is an area that schools have to think about when we talk about colonialism and those different types of things that people are expected to do and just to have one perspective and one voice and us having to assimilate to that especially as people of color. One example I’m thinking of, when you think about African immigrants as one example, their languages are never really represented and even when they don’t necessarily identify as Black Americans, we don’t think about the different types of diasporas they represent. When I think about the southwest, people want to only associate differences with people who speak Spanish or come from Spanish backgrounds, but we have a large Asian American, especially Vietnamese population, and are those languages represented? It’s just something to think about in terms of that idea of decolonising.”

For all residents to be adequately served by the school system, community members stressed that it is important that both students and families can communicate with teachers and administrators, irrespective of the language they speak. Community members suggested that ensuring language differences do not keep migrants from being able to interact with schools is a matter of justice and fairness. Integrating migrant families into the existing school system will require that all students and families have the ability to learn inside classrooms and communicate with the school outside of instruction time. Creating an environment where speaking a language other than English is not an impediment to interacting with the public school system would require an expansion of existing translational services as well as an increase in the number of district employees who are multilingual. 

Integrating such a significant number of new families who come from all parts of the world into the educational system is going to require a commitment to accommodating and empowering new residents. Public schools in particular are going to have to organize resources in such a way that new students are integrated into the educational system as seamlessly as possible. However, as community members note, these new families are not only in need of resources, their integration into the school system provides an opportunity for students and families to collaborate with and potentially improve existing institutions. Integrating migrant families in the community allows for these families to learn more about how things like education works in the Dener metro area, and also for Denver residents to learn more about these families and their immigration journey. Perhaps most importantly, community members stressed the urgency of response, noting that political disputes and other ideological divisions must be put aside in light of the gravity of this moment.