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Coming to America: Preparing immigrant families for success

4 min read

Voice of the Educator

The story of the culture-shocked immigrant has been the inspiration for many lighthearted comedies, from “Coming to America” to “Spanglish.” But movies rarely paint an accurate picture of the true hardships faced by immigrants. For new American families, the lingual, cultural, economic and technological barriers to becoming a successful citizen can be overwhelming — and if not addressed, can result in failure to thrive.

In Mankato Area Public Schools in Minnesota, where we have seen a significant population increase of East African refugees over the past two decades, we have learned important lessons for helping immigrants more quickly acclimate to their new home and achieve their goals of becoming educated and productive citizens.

Promote shared learning

The first and most urgent challenge to address is the language barrier. At Mankato Area Public Schools, the majority of our immigrant students are single/widowed mothers from war-torn countries such as Somalia, who have had no previous access to schooling.

We found that often if parents and their children are learning English at the same time, families are more likely to practice speaking English at home, and parents are better equipped to help their children with their learning. So, to help accelerate their learning, we created a family literacy program that pairs English as a second language classes for adults with on-site preschool that also focuses on language skills.

Look beyond language

As Mankato’s population grew, we saw that English literacy was only one piece of the puzzle. New community members also need to learn about cultural norms and expectations, so they can more easily fit in and be active in the community.

The Lincoln Community Center became our hub for adult immigrant learning, with a range of adult basic education classes offered through the Community Education Department, including General Educational Development (GED), college prep and job-skills classes. In the past five years, enrollment in ABE classes has spiked 32%, from 761 students in the 2008-09 school year to 1,008 students this year.

Mankato Area Public School also has three Somali liaisons on staff who have personal experience with becoming an American citizen, and who are able to assist families in their native language with everything from getting a driver’s license to boosting their job skills.

Make learning accessible

Though we’ve built robust training and support programs for immigrants, unlike in the movies, sometimes though you build it, they still can’t come. Transportation and child care often stand in the way of immigrants and refugees enrolling themselves and their children in classes.

To help overcome these obstacles, this school year we began rolling out a new program to make digital learning resources remotely accessible for families with preschool-aged children. To date, we have 106 preschool students in the district with access to digital books and personalized reading recommendations through our early childhood program, and we’ve been able to secure donated computers for many of these households.

We plan to expand the program to all Lincoln Logs Childcare and Adult Basic Education Family Literacy students this year, and our ultimate goal is to make digital learning resources available to all homes with preschool-aged learners across the Mankato school district.

Providing regular access to books and technology for students is one strategy for helping to increase school readiness. Mankato Area Public Schools has recognized a 28% increase in kindergarten readiness skills over the past six years, which is attributed to our focus on increasing access to resources for students and support for parents.

Though real life isn’t always as easy and entertaining as it is in the movies, I’ll take the stories of our real-life immigrants any day. I’ve had the opportunity to meet people who have survived war, hunger and worse by holding onto the dream of a better life.  At Mankato Area Public Schools, we believe all parents want the best for their children and are interested in engaging in the work to reach that goal.

Audra Nissen Boyer is director of Community Education and Recreation for Mankato Area Public Schools in Mankato, Minn. The digital book platform used in Mankato is offered by myON, while the donated computers were acquired through Mac to School’s “Give Mac” program. As a native who has worked and lived throughout the state, she is an expert on being “Minnesotan.” Audra can be reached by email at [email protected].

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