Some young immigrants work to support their families. Can schools support them?



In January, the COVID-19 pandemic was reaching its peak in the US and the quarantine had most people trapped at home. But travel restrictions didn’t stop 18-year-old Geovanni Díaz from logging hundreds of hours in transit. I had to go to work.

Diaz is a high school student in Oakland, California. He arrived in 2019, from Guatemala, and like thousands of recent immigrant children in the United States, he worked while attending school to pay rent and support himself and his mother. He’s also no stranger to long trips. It often took him an hour or more to get to the hospital where he was working as a janitor this spring. Although she worked night shifts, the work might not have been possible at all if she also had to take into account the daily commute to school.

At the beginning of the pandemic, distance learning provided a unique opportunity for working students: without having to spend time getting to campus and with the ability to log in to zoom from anywhere, time at work could be extended at virtually any point of the day. And once the economic downturn began, that opportunity often became a necessity, especially for immigrant students. Now, as schools reopen and resume pre-pandemic hours, districts are facing obstacles to getting these students back to school, and some are testing new strategies in the process.

“Some students are saying ‘Well, if I can’t put food on the table for my family, why is education the top priority for me?’” Says Rose Francois, senior program director at Root, a nonprofit organization that supports immigrant youth in Massachusetts. “I think right now some schools are thinking that we are going to get back to normal, but I really don’t think the students are.”

Immigrant students who work while going to school It is not a new phenomenon. But with the pandemic, students are taking on jobs in greater numbers or working full-time at jobs they already had, says Avary Carhill-Poza, a researcher at the University of Massachusetts Boston who has been studying these students during the pandemic.

“This year, with no cameras on, students have told us that they are attending classes with the cameras off while cleaning houses for money, while fixing cars for money, while taking care of their brothers and sisters,” he says.

Part of the explanation has to do with how these communities experienced the pandemic. The economic consequences struck Black and brown families more heavily and immigrants suffered disproportionately service industry closures and layoffs. Due to language barriers and less access to legal remedies, they were also more vulnerable to evictions, even in cities that instituted moratoriums. Carhill-Poza noted that while some students she follows used to spend the money they earned on themselves, most are now contributing rent or family support.

Facing a new reality

In the early days of the pandemic, school districts and community leaders provided laptops, Internet hardware, and money to keep students interested. Enroot released on Emergency Immigrant Cash Assistance Fund which distributed more than $ 170,000 to families in Cambridge and Somerville, Mass. In Oakland, schools across the district organized fundraisers and distributed food and medical resources to support newly arrived immigrants, especially those without documentation who did not qualify for federal aid.

But as the months passed, school leaders began to think beyond emergency interventions and face a new reality: having a job, and sometimes working during regular school hours, would be essential for many immigrant students.

“That’s the priority, period,” says Emma Batten-Bowman, assistant principal at Rudsdale Newcomer High School, an Oakland continuation school designed for older working immigrant students.

In Massachusetts, Enroot offers tutoring and after-school tutoring to immigrant students for free. Last year, they realized their curriculum met the needs of students who had new questions about financial education, job training, and finding alternative paths to college that might include work, but they didn’t sacrifice a degree.

“Rather than trying to fit students into ‘This is what programming needs to take into account,’ I think we need to mold ourselves around them as much as possible,” says Francois. “We did that during the academic school year and I think we will continue to do so.”

Lasting changes

At Rudsdale Newcomer High, school starts relatively late, at 9:30 am, and offers shorter hours overall, with faster credit accumulation, no homework, and work experience credit. Batten-Bowman says she is also in regular contact with many of her students’ employers.

“I talked to a lot of managers and I was like ‘Hey, this student is trying to graduate, is there any way they can have the night shift?'”

The need here is high. Of the more than 1,800 unaccompanied minor students who have enrolled in the district in the past 8 years, about 750 have dropped out, says Nate Dunstan, an administrator who provides newcomer and refugee services for the Oakland Unified School District.

In many ways, the school was better prepared than most to accommodate the influx of working students. But teachers and staff have still learned quite a few lessons, Batten-Bowman says. Teachers are easing some deadlines and trying to strengthen lines of communication with students to prevent someone from being left behind.

Dunstan has also helped older students who work in the district communicate more widely with immigration attorneys and apply for work permits. He says he hopes to hire another staff member to reach immigrant students who have dropped out.

In Alexandria, Va., The district is taking its first steps in trying to provide a similar type of flexibility to its students. This spring, he pioneered a new night school program designed specifically for day-working English language learners, one of the first of its kind in the state.

The program, called Alternative Pathways to Achievement, was developed by two teachers, Kellie Woodson and Jacqueline Rice, as a project for their Master’s degrees in Educational Leadership. About one in four Hispanic students in the district drop out, they say, and Hispanic children in particular are more likely to drop out of school early. When the pandemic began, that disparity became even more stark.

“It was surprising to see that students who had really excellent attendance dramatically decreased their attendance … in a virtual environment that you would imagine would be more accessible,” says Woodson.

Now, twice a week, teachers volunteer at Zoom to teach one-hour classes from 7-9 pm specifically geared toward English learners. Although Woodson and Rice began planning for the program in 2019, COVID-19 pressured the district to implement the program as quickly as possible.

As for Diaz in Oakland, he’s interviewing for a new job, this time loading FedEx boxes at the airport. Their shifts would last from 6 p.m. to 2:30 a.m., but the daily commute is only 15 minutes. And look forward to summer classes in person.

“I am very happy because I understand better in face-to-face classes,” he says in Spanish. “And I think this will give me time to study.”

Someday, you would like to open your own construction business. Finding a new balance between work and study after the pandemic is one of the first steps toward that goal, and he is optimistic.

“Getting good grades and getting college credit is what I’m going to do,” he says. “I’ll try.”