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Introducing the U.S. School System to Newcomer Students and Families During—and After—the Pandemic

By Jason Greenberg Motamedi and Kelli Scardina | September 24, 2020

Jason Greenberg Motamedi
Jason Greenberg Motamedi is a senior advisor at Education Northwest. His research supports educators in the Pacific Northwest and across the country in the areas of English learner student instruction and related issues, such as teacher development for bilingual and dual-language instruction.

Imagine that you must leave your home abruptly and move to a new country. You are unfamiliar with the culture, you don't know the language—and you have to enroll your children in school.

Now imagine dealing with all these challenges and unknowns in the middle of a global pandemic.

This is the situation facing thousands of newcomer immigrant and refugee families, who likely understand the school system in their home countries but have little point of reference for education in the United States.

To provide support, REL Northwest developed a user-friendly, accessible guide geared toward newcomer families that serves as an introduction to the U.S. school system.

Starting School in the United States: A Guide for Newcomer Students' Families is available in Arabic, English, Somali, and Spanish. The guide is divided into five sections:

  • Getting to Know the U.S. School System
  • Getting Started: Registering
  • Getting Involved: Advocating
  • Getting to Know Your Rights: Laws
  • Getting More Information: Resources
Kelli Scardina
Kelli Scardina is a senior advisor in equity and systems improvement for emergent bilingual students at Education Northwest. Her work focuses on designing and facilitating professional learning, coaching, program development, and consulting for technical assistance.

REL Northwest developed the guide before the COVID-19 pandemic, but it remains relevant and applicable to the current reality of virtual and hybrid learning models.

For example, as discussed in the "Getting to Know the U.S. School System" section, families still need to enroll their children in school, although the typical school day will likely involve online learning from home rather than attending in-person classes in the school.

In addition, building on the "Getting More Information" section, students who qualify for free or reduced-price meals are still able to access this service—but rather than eating the meal in a classroom or the school cafeteria, they may have to pick it up from school themselves. Also, some districts are offering meal delivery to families who don't have their own transportation.

Per the "Getting to Know Your Rights" section, it is important to emphasize that, by law, English learner students are entitled to receive English learner services, no matter the learning environment; English learner students should have a specially trained teacher working with them in online settings and/or in the physical classroom. This English language development instruction is in addition to the regular classroom or content instruction.

One section of Starting School in the United States may be especially critical today: "Getting Involved." During the pandemic, it might be even more important for newcomer families to advocate for their children (such as ensuring the school meets their technological needs by providing a hot spot and/or a computer for each child).

Regardless of whether newcomer students are starting school in the United States during or after the COVID-19 pandemic, REL Northwest's new guide will help these students and their families navigate an unfamiliar education system—and ultimately help set them up for success.