Voices in Education

Partnerships with Immigrant Families in Politically Polarized Times
Close to a quarter of all public school students in the United States come from immigrant households; yet, K–12 schools struggle to effectively serve this population. This is especially true in a political climate that is outwardly hostile to immigrants (Gándara, 2018) and in the midst of a pandemic that has taken a disproportionate toll on immigrant communities. Our work on immigrant serving schools has highlighted the importance of social justice leadership (Villavicencio, 2020), buffering schools from harmful policy (Jaffe-Walter & Villavicencio, 2021), and teacher practice focused on culturally relevant, linguistically responsive classrooms (Villavicencio, Jaffe-Walter, & Klevan, 2020). Another critical—and typically overlooked—dimension of effectively serving immigrant students and children of immigrants is building and maintaining authentic partnerships with families.

Parental involvement has been linked to a variety of positive student outcomes (Fan, Williams, & Wolters, 2012; Suárez-Orozco, Onaga, & De Lardemelle, 2010), but immigrant families are less likely to interact with schools than are white native-born parents (Gaitan, 2012; Turney & Kao, 2009). Part of the gap can be explained by the limited ways in which public schools conceptualize parent engagement (e.g., volunteering on field trips, participating in fundraisers, or attending parent conference during work hours). When immigrant parents do not take part in these activities, school actors often perceive that they are disengaged or indifferent.

Moreover, racial and ethnic stereotypes can shape how schools communicate and interact with immigrant families. Immigrant parents have reported feeling belittled, ignored, or othered after interacting with school personnel (Bajaj, Ghaffar-Kucher, & Desai, 2016; Hill & Torres, 2010). These dynamics, while having always existed, intensified during the Trump administration. As xenophobic rhetoric increasingly became a mainstay of political discourse, immigrant families faced greater fear of separation, hostility or violence from the public, and harassment from authorities (Gándara, 2018; Pentón Herrera & Obregón, 2018). Given an increasingly anti-immigrant climate, immigrant parents may be even more suspicious of government institutions, such as schools, so it is incumbent upon schools to nurture trust among the families of the students they serve.

Our research team spent three years in two high-performing schools that are part of the Internationals Network—a community of schools serving recently arrived immigrant and refugee youth who are multilingual. As products of immigrant households ourselves, some of us were particularly interested in exploring how these educators build relationships with families. We found that both schools practiced open-door policies, engaged in informal and unplanned communication, and conducted outreach via numerous platforms in multiple languages. The level of accessibility coupled with the familial nature of their interactions positioned family members as equal members of the community, while disrupting typical power dynamics in schools (Gaitan, 2012).

One prominent area of support that schools provided revolved around family separation and reunification—a common challenge despite the heterogeneity of families’ migration experiences. The schools responded by dedicating resources for specialized staff (e.g., social workers and counselors) and providing teachers with trauma-informed professional development. School actors sometimes took on the role of mediators between young people and their families, particularly when there were disagreements related to work and college. This included advocating for students to pursue higher education and addressing parental fears about the risks of leaving home and being undocumented on campus.

Educators also sought to build upon families’ navigational capital (Yosso, 2005) to practice resistance in an increasingly hostile political environment. Partnerships with immigrant advocacy organizations provided support around legal status, housing, and health care, which proved responsive to the material realties of the families they served. In so doing, the schools helped families navigate systems that threatened their well-being, livelihood, and/or status in the United States.

Overall, these schools provided an alternative model of parent engagement—one not predicated on white, middle-class norms, but rather centered on the voices, concerns, and resources of immigrant families. As families all around the country return to in-person schooling this fall, educators will have to contend with the collective loss experienced by immigrant families and the ongoing apprehension over public institutions. How can we develop current and future school leaders and teachers to think beyond “diversity” and “multicultural” communities to become responsive to the specific experiences of immigrant families? What would it look like if broader policies—governing schools, healthcare, policing, and other sectors—were also geared toward supporting immigrant families and creating conditions in which their children can thrive?


Bajaj, M., Ghaffar-Kucher, A., & Desai, K. (2016). Brown bodies and xenophobic bullying in US schools: Critical analysis and strategies for action. Harvard Educational Review, 86(4), 481–505. doi:10.17763/1943-5045-86.4.481

Fan, W., Williams, C. M., & Wolters, C. A. (2012). Parental involvement in predicting school motivation: Similar and differential effects across ethnic groups. Journal of Educational Research, 105(1), 21–35. doi:10.1080/00220671.2010.515625

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Gándara, P. (2018). Backtalk: Betraying our immigrant students. Phi Delta Kappan, 100(1), 48. doi:10.1177/0031721718797126

Hill, N. E., & Torres, K. (2010). Negotiating the American dream: The paradox of aspirations and achievement among Latino students and engagement between their families and schools. Journal of Social Issues, 66(1), 95–112. doi:10.1111/j.1540-4560.2009.01635

Jaffe-Walter, R., & Villavicencio, A. (2021). Leaders’ negotiation of teacher evaluation policy in immigrant-serving schools. Educational Policy. doi.org/10.1177/08959048211015614

Pentón Herrera, L., & Obregón, N. (2018). Challenges facing Latinx ESOL students in the Trump era: Stories told through testimonios. Journal of Latinos and Education, 19(4), 383-91. doi:10.1080/15348431.2018.1523793

Suárez-Orozco, C., Onaga, M., & De Lardemelle, C. (2010). Promoting academic engagement among immigrant adolescents through school-family-community collaboration. Professional School Counseling, 14(1), 15–26. doi:10.1177/2156759X1001400103

Turney, K., & Kao, G. (2009). Barriers to school involvement: Are immigrant parents disadvantaged? Journal of Educational Research, 102(4), 257–71. doi:10.3200/JOER.102.4.257-271

Villavicencio, A. (2021). School leadership for latinx, immigrant students and their families: A Model of Advocacy and Critical Care. Journal of Leadership, Equity, and Research, 7(2). https://journals.sfu.ca/cvj/index.php/cvj/article/view/145

Villavicencio, A., Jaffe-Walter, J., & Klevan, S. (2020). “You can’t close your door here”: Leveraging teacher collaboration to improve outcomes for immigrant English learners. Teaching and Teacher Education, 97, 1–11. doi:10.1016/j.tate.2020.103227

Yosso, T. J. (2005). Whose culture has capital? Race Ethnicity and Education, 8(1), 69–91. doi:10.1080/1361332052000341006

About the Author: Adriana Villavicencio is an assistant professor in the School of Education at the University of California, Irvine. Her research is focused on how K–12 educational policy and practice deepens or disrupts inequities for historically underserved students and their families. 

Adriana Villavicencio, Chandler Patton Miranda, Jia-Lin Liu, and Hua-Yu Sebastian Cherng are the authors of "'What’s Going to Happen to Us?'" in the Summer 2021 issue of Harvard Educational Review.