Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Lessons Learned: School Orientation for Refugee Parents

Including more on U.S. Schools in General Orientation sessions 
  • Through the Department of State’s Reception and Placement Program, adult refugee arrivals are provided basic orientation sessions during the first 3 months after arrival.  These sessions take place in group or one-on-one settings.  Regular cultural orientation sessions include an introduction to the U.S. school system, school enrollment process, report cards, attendance/excuse notes, importance of learning English, discipline at home and in school, abuse/neglect of children, and safety in the community, among other general resettlement topics.
  • This is the chance for the school liaison (if available) to be introduced, his/her role explained and contact information provided to the parent.  This way even if arrivals don't have school age children upon arrival, they will know who to contact at the local office. 
  • If you work in public schools and see ways orientation for parents could be stronger, contact your local resettlement agency to find out how you can collaborate.
Catholic Charities of Onondaga County (Syracuse, NY)

  • The School Liaison has an on-going relationship with the parents and children.  She interfaces with the school district, introduces the students to their new school upon enrollment and works with families around parent conferences and school activities.
    Refugee Youth and parents enjoy a farm!
    Photo credit: Northside Catholic Youth Organization
  • Catholic Charities holds a month-long new student academy for all students who arrived the previous month.  The academy, which meets 4 days week for 2 ½ hours/session, provides an overview of what school will be like and basic education from raising your hand and school supplies to what makes a good friend.
  • At the end of the academy, students receive a backpack filled with school supplies and new shoes.  The academy is staffed by a Jesuit Volunteer with assistance from community volunteers and funded by the Youth Bureau, United Way and private funders.

Catholic Charities of Arlington’s Virginia Refugee Student Achievement Project (VRSAP)
  • This program funded by the State of Virginia, provides refugee families both initial and ongoing services for 5 years after arrival.  The services include the initial orientation, assistance with health department follow-up and school registration, links to tutoring, invitation to special events, and connecting families to necessary stabilization resources to ensure full integration into local schools and community. 
  • Soon after arrival, a School Liaison meets with each family individually to explain the program and assess the parents and students’ individual needs.  This meeting results in an academic action plan. 

Caritas of Austin, Texas
  • The General Orientation ‘U.S. Education System’ session is taught by Austin Independent School District (AISD)’s Refugee Parent Liaison. This session familiarizes refugee parents with the U.S. education system (registration, attendance, school policies, reports cards, school supplies, transportation, meals, homework and available tutoring services) and their rights and responsibilities regarding their children’s education.  The ‘Parenting in the U.S.’ session is taught by a Child Protective Services representative who provides parents an initial understanding of expectations of parents in the United States, healthy relationships, child discipline and what are considered appropriate forms of discipline. 

    Caritas volunteer poses after homework help!
    Photo Credit: Caritas of Austin
  • Caritas recently started offering Cultural Orientation to refugee school-aged children, partnering with AISD and Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) for this training.  AISD’s Refugee Family Liaison covers grade placement, tardy/attendance, excused absences, Food Service Program, uniforms, report cards, parent-teacher conferences, confidentiality, complaints and the public school bus system. The YWCA covers Substance abuse and peer pressure. 
  • Caritas also has a Direct Service Volunteer (DSV) Program where volunteers are trained and paired with some refugee families to help reinforce the knowledge acquired in classes and assure a continued support for the first few months. Volunteers help newcomer parents understand the papers sent home from school, assist with homework and a lot more. 
Tips for Service Providers or School Liaisons Preparing Parents for the U.S. School System

  • Even though these parents’ English language skills may not be as strong as other parents, their involvement and interest in their child’s education is just as important!
  • Provide the newly arrived refugee parents a thorough orientation on what the school system looks like in the U.S., focusing on the main points they need to know immediately.  Follow up to reinforce cultural orientation themes. 
  • Be responsive to the parent through visits, phone calls or coordinating interpretation for parent/teacher conferences, so you create an environment that they can come to you any time they have a question about what their child(ren) are going through. 
  • Make an effort to form an ongoing relationship with the family so that when issues arise, the family trusts you. Often times, youth specifically request the school liaison’s presence when going through an issue because trust has already been built.
  • Form relationships with district officials and English as New Language (ENL) teachers, as they are a tremendous support to both students, their families and you! Create a system with the school secretaries that works efficiently for both parties. Always inform the ENL teachers of new ENL students. The teachers love to meet the students and often can find student translators if needed.
  • Be patient with yourself and the parents! You are serving a very vulnerable population who has many struggles ahead, but has overcome many struggles in the past.
Additional Resources

  • Be sure to check out the schools section of BRYCS website for helpful briefs, webinars and online trainings, promising practices and highlighted resource lists on a variety of school related topics!
  • BRYCS School's Toolkit Refugee Children in U.S. Schools: A Toolkit for Teachers and  School  Personnel includes tools on grade placement, strengthening collaboration between schools and refugee-serving agencies, child welfare guidance, bullying, and federal interpretation/translation guidelines.
This month's guest blogger: Marisa Rogers, Cultural Orientation Coordinator, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops/Migration and Refugee Services (USCCB/MRS)


  1. You are a truly compassionate soul...thank you <3

  2. Jefferson County Public Schools, KYJune 9, 2016 at 3:19 PM

    Catholic Charities is the primary liaison. However we have a ESL Program at my school and the teachers are great with communicating to families. As the FRC Coordinator I conducted Home Visits, but we need information translated so that our families understand.

  3. Fairfax County Public Schools, VAJune 9, 2016 at 3:20 PM

    In my school district, we have Parent liaisons in almost every school that work as a link between families and schools.

    1. Ben Malecki,VRSAP School Liaison, Migration &amp; Refugee Services, Catholic Charities Diocese of ArlingtonJune 9, 2016 at 3:23 PM

      Hi there, Often VRSAP school liaisons introduce new families to Parent Liaisons at Central Registration and local schools in Fairfax county as well. It is a very valuable connection and help for Fairfax County because of the such large ESL population in Fairfax County.

    2. Fairfax County Public Schools, VAJune 9, 2016 at 3:24 PM

      We also have community liaisons in all the registration sites that work with families as they come to evaluate their needs and direct them to the different services available.

  4. Working in an ethnic Based-community organization in Rhode Island, unfortunately Mental Health/Trauma are taken consideration to adults. Please, a consideration to children and youth in Mental Health issues is needed.

    1. https://gulfcoastjewishfamilyandcommunityservices.org/refugee/ A great source for information on this topic, ORR's TA provider on mental health.

  5. Just for clarification in NY - CFC support is only for the first 3 months after arrival??

  6. Would you mind sharing ideas for addressing cultural stigmas regarding addressing mental health needs?

  7. Community ConnectionsJune 9, 2016 at 3:30 PM

    The programs described are short term.. what happens when a family/student need more long-term services?

  8. Catholic Charities, Santa Clara CountyJune 9, 2016 at 3:32 PM

    I'd love to hear more about the High School Leadership group. We have a (new) similar group that we try and let the kids have lots of autonomy with, give them a voice, and I'd love some ideas on how to help direct them and how to get them involved in supporting new youth. (this is refugee foster youth, so not families)

  9. Can anyone share ideas for best practices of effectively sharing information with teachers? Or training teachers about some of the needs of refugee students?

    1. Check out BRYCS Schools Toolkit http://www.brycs.org/publications/schools-toolkit.cfm Tools currently include age/grade placement, collaboration between school and resettlement agencies, child welfare guidance, federal interpretation/translation guidelines, and bullying/discrimination. We will add new tools as needed.Hopefully one guiding enrollment.

      If you are not yet a member of our listserv, please sign up to get alerts on new resources. There are plans to release an online curriculum for educators before the new school year.

      There are also great briefs/highlighted resources lists that can be found here: