Working Effectively with Hispanic Immigrant Families

By Holman, Linda J. | Phi Delta Kappan, April 1997 | Go to article overview

Working Effectively with Hispanic Immigrant Families


Holman, Linda J., Phi Delta Kappan


Ms. Holman describes the differing needs of Hispanic immigrant families and their children and suggests ways in which administrators and other school staff members can assist these newcomers in making a successful transition to school.

The category of "Hispanic," as established by the U.S. Bureau of the Census, includes a broad range of people of Latin American or Spanish descent. Although policy makers sometimes behave as if the term refers to a homogeneous group, the Hispanic community, particularly in the U.S./Mexico border area, is composed of several distinct groups, ranging from recent immigrants to this country to individuals whose families settled in the area as early as the 1600s.

In general, minority populations are distributed unequally throughout the U.S. They are concentrated primarily in urban areas and have high birth rates. Approximately 73.7% of the entire Hispanic population is concentrated in California, Texas, New York, and Florida, and the population of Hispanics who are under the age of 18 in these states is projected to increase from 11% to 28% by the year 2020.(1) Immigration from Central and South America affects population growth in California and Texas, and job opportunities in urban centers in New York and Florida attract immigrants from Cuba and the Caribbean.

Many urban school districts have experienced almost a complete reversal of traditional proportions of white and minority students, and minority students are the majority school population in many districts today. The proportion of the Hispanic population that is composed of new immigrants, both legal and illegal, is not easily determined. But the growing number of students enrolled in bilingual education programs suggests that it is substantial. According to the 1990 Census, 73% of the total foreign-born population under 18 years of age lives in California, Illinois, Florida, Texas, and New York.(2)

Many Hispanic children are likely to be from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, particularly those whose families have recently arrived and are depending on minimum-wage jobs or are part of the "shadow economy." According to 1993 U.S. Census Bureau data, approximately 40% of Hispanic children live in poverty, compared to 13% of non-Hispanic white children.(3) As many as 45.7% of Hispanic children living in counties on the U.S./Mexico border, which traditionally have a high proportion of new immigrant families, live in poverty.(4)

Administrators in school districts experiencing growth in the number of new immigrant families will find that these families and their children have needs that differ from those of established Hispanic families in their neighborhoods. School personnel may not have much experience working with immigrant families. Administrators and other school staff members need to adjust their attitudes and take steps to assist the newly arrived families and their children in making a successful transition to school.

* The staff needs to recognize that it is likely that the children of these newly arrived Hispanic families will be motivated, hard-working students. Their parents have sacrificed a familiar way of life to move to the U.S. in order to provide themselves and their children with opportunities not available to them in their home countries. Frequently, they see access to our system of public education as one of these opportunities.

* The faculty and staff of the schools must also recognize that these families might come from a very different kind of world. Furthermore, the wives and children may not want to be here. And even families that desire the increased opportunities available to them in the U.S. can be "homesick" for their families, friends, language, and customs.

* Parents newly arrived in this country might have substantial formal education in their native language. Lack of skill in English can make it difficult for them to help their children with homework.

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