Finding Success with Immigrant Students at UCLA Community School

By John McDonald

Migration,” says Marcelo Suárez-Orozco, “is as old as Homo sapiens, it is an ancient and shared condition of our humanity.” Suarez-Orozco, the Wasserman Dean of the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies and a noted scholar on migration, likes to say, “We are all immigrants, it is the issue of our times.”

He may be onto something.  In the United States about a quarter of all students have a foreign-born parent. Here in California the number jumps up to about half. In the Los Angeles Unified School District, 67 percent of students have a foreign-born parent. And many students are themselves new arrivals to our nation.

In recent months, the issue of immigration has become highly charged. The rhetoric of the Trump administration has castigated immigrants as criminals and worse, and policies have sought to ramp up deportation efforts and block those who would seek asylum.

The UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies sees immigrants differently.  It sees them as the future.

“These children and their families have so much to offer our schools and our communities,” said Jody Priselac, Associate Dean for Community Programs. “Their experiences and culture add greatly to our neighborhoods and nation. We are learning so much from them and together, we are finding ways to succeed.”

The graduate school is engaged in multiple efforts to ensure the educational success of students from immigrant families. Perhaps the most prevalent of these is the UCLA Community School in Koreatown. Built on the Robert F. Kennedy campus at the former site of the Ambassador Hotel, the school was intentionally designed and developed to meet the needs of neighborhood children and families, almost all of who are immigrants.

“We wanted to break the mold,” Priselac says. “We wanted to be different. We wanted to be a school where the least served and too often thought of as the least likely to succeed, found a way to do so. We knew there was going to be a large immigrant population and so we intentionally set out to learn about and find ways to meet their needs.”

That desire drove early decisions about the school, from the hiring of the principal to recruitment and preparation of the teachers, to the development of the curriculum and the structure of the school.

“We started at square one, Priselac says. “We brought in community people and organizations, university people, teachers, students, the principal, everyone, and asked ‘how are we going to come together as a community to create a special place of learning? What’s going to guide the work that will create a school that’s for the children of the neighborhood?”

One of the first things they did – with a grant from the California Community Foundation – was to listen to the people who lived in the neighborhood. Teachers and staff went out and knocked on doors, walked the neighborhoods and made home visits.  They talked with parents and kids, and got to see who the families were and where the kids lived. It showed the parents and kids that they cared enough to come, helping to break down the barriers between the school and community.

“It helped to create a culture of caring, a culture of belief in the children and their families,” Priselac says.  “As trivial as it might sound, it’s that culture shift, that culture of belief, that became the foundation for the school. From day one, that was what we did, believe in the kids and their families.”

“From the inception, there was a real intention to address the needs of the community and the ways it might be changing,” adds Leyda Garcia, the Principal of the Community School. “We are always trying to pay attention to what those needs are based on our interactions with families and students, and changes they go through and the specific needs they have.”

Today, the UCLA Community School serves about 1,000 students in grade levels from transitional kindergarten through high school. It is a neighborhood school where all students in the neighborhood are welcome.  The school population is a little more than 80 percent Hispanic, with many of the students and families from the Northern Triangle of Central America, others from Mexico.  About another 10 percent of the students are Asian, many hailing from Korea. Others are Filipino. More than nine in ten are from families with lower incomes. Two-thirds of the residents in the school’s neighborhood are foreign-born – among the highest percentage of immigrants in Los Angeles. More than a third are English learners.

“In spite of all the challenges they face, the things they have left behind, and all the things that could define them, we see them just thinking about other possibilities and a different kind of future for themselves, it’s inspiring,” Garcia says.  “They have these amazing stories of strength and resilience and ingenuity, and this desire to really do more, to do more, to receive, but also to give back and help others.”

Together, students and parents and educators have created a school that meets the needs of this community, a place, as they say at the school, “where we grow together.”

From day one, there is a focus on academic success, on going to college, but also on welcoming students and their families and making sure they know they belong.

“It’s beyond our culture, our teaching, our practices.  There is a layer of culturally affirming pedagogy and curriculum and leadership here,” Garcia says. “It’s not just responsive to who you are, but it’s actually affirming. We say ‘what you bring with you matters, its rich, its important,’ and we affirm it. What each one of us brings is really valuable.

“And I think from the time they are very little those are the messages they get. We say, your language matters, whether it’s Tagalog, or whether it’s Mam because you speak an indigenous Mayan language, or Zapotec – whatever it is, it matters.”

The youngest students start school in a nurturing transitional kindergarten, then move through the lower school in multi-age groups, staying with the same teacher and peers for two years, creating a strong, supportive community for children and allowing teachers to personalize learning. Building on the language assets of school families, all students participate in a dual language program in Spanish and English, or in Korean and English, where students receive language and content instruction in two languages. For some, it may be their third or even fourth language.

“At our school we hold a lot of pride in being able to speak multiple languages. Our culture is to honor multiple languages,” says Rebekah Kang, coordinator for the UCLA Community School.

“That really bleeds into the classroom.   Students really own their language. They take pride in being bilingual.  I think that because language is connected so much to culture and to identity, that when we value student’s language, we are valuing their culture. We are valuing their identity and who they are.  All of that builds a sense of pride for students and builds a sense of community.  Students really feel like this place is their home because we value their language.”

The middle school provides a nurturing student-centered learning community.  Sixth grade students develop close relationships with teachers in two key content areas, math/science and humanities.  In 7th and 8th grades, students move upstairs and rotate across core classes and project-based seminars, supported by the same advisor for two years.  

In the high school all students enroll in a rigorous sequence of college-prep courses that exceed the standards for admission to the University of California/California State University System.  Students learn in an eight-period rotating block schedule designed to support the longer time needed for active, inquiry-based learning.  In addition to core classes and an advisory period, students explore their interests and passions through a seminar program that culminates in a senior internship experience. The aim is for 100 percent of graduates to be college ready, bilingual and bi-literate, prepared to serve as leaders of change.

Teachers and school leaders are working to expand the dual language program from the early grades through the high school, and there is a new focus on multi-lingual and multi-cultural learning in the upper grades.  Building on the bilingual strengths of students, teachers and UCLA researchers have created a multi-lingual and multi-cultural approach where the diversity of languages are considered linguistic assets and resources, and democratic classrooms, language and literacy strategies and multicultural pedagogy are central to teaching practices. The school’s leadership team of teachers and administrator is providing a professional development series on trans-language teaching strategies that support learning two languages by code switching, a practice of alternating between two or more languages, and language mixing. The expectation is that trans-language strategies will be implemented in all classes K-12.

“I think immigrants bring the beauty of their experiences, their pictures, their languages, their family to our school and community,” says Jason Torres-Rangel, a teacher at the UCLA Community School. Our responsibility is to value those identities, their languages, those experiences, and to respect them. 

“We bring their identities to the center of the room. We talk about things like immigration, race, poverty and other issues that let students explore their own identities.  Even though I teach English, I make sure the classroom is a safe space for languages other than English. And I make sure that they know that will be valued.”

There is evidence that the efforts of students, families and teachers at the community school are making a difference. In 2018, 83 percent of 3rd graders were reading at grade level – 61 percent in both Spanish and English. On their final report cards, in grades 6-8, more than 80 percent of students received C’s or above in all subjects. In the upper school grades, 45 percent of students reported using a language other than English with teachers. Eighty-six percent of the Class of 2017 enrolled in college and 85% of the Class of 2016 persisted from their freshman to sophomore year, exceeding enrollment and persistence rates for the local school district, state and nation. In 2018, the UCLA Community School was recognized U.S. News and World Report with a Silver Award as the 5th best high school in the Los Angeles and one of the top 1,000 public high schools in the nation.

That is not to say there are not challenges.  Job and food insecurity, access to affordable housing, and sometimes homelessness have a real impact on students and their families.

“We have little kids, kindergartners, who come to school and just pass out,” Garcia says. “They are sleeping in their car, and it’s not comfortable, and they are not getting a good night’s sleep.

“So what we do, is, we say ‘you need to sleep,’ and we let them sleep.  And we try to get their parents to come in, and without judgment, to ask them what’s going on, how can we be of help?

“I think maybe the most important thing we do is listen. The teachers are very aware of who the students are,” Garcia says.  “We spend so much time building community and doing these community circles. And the children will sometimes share, and that helps us to respond in a particular way or to refer a student or their family for some extra support.”

In the past two decades, war, crime and environmental disaster have hit hard in the Northern Triangle of Central America, accelerating forced immigration from the region to the United States.  Many of those immigrants have come to Los Angeles. One of the results has been an influx of older students at UCLA Community School. Some of these students had arrived in the U.S. as unaccompanied minors, and some had been in detention centers, For many, their education has been interrupted.

“Some of these students definitely had very different social needs. They were 15, 16, 17, 18 years old, they had been out of school, they were struggling to reunify with their families, they were working,” Garcia says.

“It made me realize how little I knew, and how maybe we as a site were neglecting these important pieces of our community. And so we started listening to the students, learning about their journeys.  And they started to give us more information about the sort of needs they had.

“I think that was our first look, and they gave us a deep understanding of their issues from the stories they were sharing with us. It helped us to establish a better relationship with them and to start thinking about what might work better for each one of them.”

Collaborating with researchers from UCLA, the school also began to conduct research about the social-emotional needs of immigrant students.  One of the results of the research was the establishment of a class called Learning a New Land, named after the book about meeting the needs of immigrant students by Marcelo and Carola Suárez-Orozco of UCLA.  It’s a space where students can get the time, resources and help they need to succeed. The class aims to make students feel welcome and valued for who they are and what they bring to the school.  A key element is a community circle, where students build connections and develop a sense of belonging. With the support of UCLA undergraduate tutors, students can work on their English and and develop cultural and other skills that help them to adjust to life in Los Angeles and in the United States.  And they can get help with classes and homework, and have time to do their homework.

“One thing we have learned is that the vast majority of these students go to work right after school, and they work until midnight or one in the morning.  These are not kids who get to go home and have dinner and then go in their room and do their homework,” Garcia says. “So whatever they get here is what they get and are going to be able to do. So we are trying to maximize the time they have to study and learn things.”  

Building on the bilingual program, teachers also offer instruction in Spanish in History and other courses required for graduation.  They have also added classes in mathematics in Spanish, so that students can do Algebra, Geometry and other required courses in their native language.

The rhetoric and policies of the Trump administration over immigration are also having an impact. In a national survey of schools led by Patricia Gandara, UCLA education professor and co-director of the Civil Rights Project, 64 percent of teachers, administrators, and school staff said that immigration enforcement was having a negative effect on their schools. Ninety percent of administrators noticed behavioral or emotional problems among immigrant students, 70 percent reported an academic decline.

“I’ll never forget the day after the election we came onto the campus and there were these little huddles of parents talking and crying, people were crying in the counselors office,” Garcia said.   “One father told a counselor ‘you know, I am not a rapist.  I work hard, I love my children, I don’t hurt anybody.’  And there were moms there, worried about their mixed status families, and students worried about DACA.”

To address these fears and tensions, students, teachers and community members at the school worked together to develop a sanctuary protocol.  They conducted research on school district policies and practices and from other schools and cities. They have trained staff and students and parents on the sanctuary policies, and established a network for sharing information. This spring, UCLA Community School and the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, joined with the UCLA Law School to launch an Immigration Legal Clinic to provide legal services to parents and students. 

“There are all these eyes raised in our community all the time.  We make sure that everyone knows they are safe here,” Garcia says. “We have come together and are stronger together.”

Working with researchers at UCLA, the Community School has also conducted research aimed at helping students who may be undocumented to succeed in school and go on to college. The research summarizes the challenges facing undocumented students and outlines recommendations for strategies and practices that develop and support an inclusive school community. The recommendations also identify supports for students who may be undocumented in the college application process, and ways to connect students and parents with information about their legal rights and other information and resources to encourage and support students in applying for college and financial aid.  The research underscores the trust and personal relationships the school has built with students and families as part of a multitude of practices that support undocumented students.

“In the end, it’s really the power of the whole community that really propels the changes we have made,” Garcia says. “It’s about creating an identity of everything we can be. Oftentimes, as an immigrant or minority or member of a marginalized community, we are told what we are and what we are not, where we belong and where we don’t belong. But we are redefining all that to create these little humans who are very aware of who they are, proud of who they are, going to different spaces and pushing to stay there.  I think they bring a richness of experiences, of ideas, that I think can keep propelling our country in better and better ways.”