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Designing Professional Learning Focused on Supporting Undocumented Students and Families

Teacher: Molly McKay Bryson
School: Cross-site team

The Challenge:
According to the district, Boston Public Schools is home to students from 139 different countries from around the world. Yet the BPS problem of practice identifies that “BPS does not consistently provide authentic learning opportunities for our students who are most marginalized.” One way that this plays out is that Immigrant students, undocumented immigrant students and students whose family members’ have mixed documentation status face unique challenges that we do not yet sufficiently support. The American Psychological Association established in a 2011 study through Harvard that students who are undocumented or have undocumented family members may experience “anxiety, fear, depression, anger, social isolation and lack of a sense of belonging” and are ”less likely to engage with teachers or be active in schools.” What’s more, Zaretta Hammond demonstrates in Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain that “in an environment that is inattentive or hostile, the body sends out a distress signal. Stress hormones make learning nearly impossible. Even if the environment isn’t hostile but simply unwelcoming, people can experience anxiety… We cannot downplay a student’s need to feel safe and valued in the classroom in order to learn.” Thus, for us to uphold our professional responsibility to support all Boston students’ learning we must support adults in BPS to better understand and support the experiences of undocumented students and students who are part of mixed-status families.

What did your team do about it?:
The Unafraid Educators are a Boston Teachers Union organizing committee that works to build sanctuary schools from the ground up. To us, this means building schools that welcome, respect, cherish, and protect immigrant students and families regardless of documentation status. One tactic we’ve used to work towards this is designing and facilitating adult professional learning. Over the last three years we have facilitated PD at BPS’ Teacher Summer Institute, multiple summits of the Massachusetts’ Teachers Association, the Boston-area Educators for Social Justice Conference, as well as at colleges and universities such as Lesley, BU, and Wheelock.

We used this grant to stipend educators and to contract with the Student Immigrant Movement — a non-profit founded and led by undocumented young people — to redesign and strengthen that professional learning. We also worked together to develop a strategy for training facilitators and facilitating the professional learning throughout Boston Public Schools in coming years at school communities that are interested in working towards “building a sanctuary school from the ground up” which we define as communities where undocumented students are welcomed, respected, cherished, and protected.

Our largest roadblock was finishing the work on an accelerated time-line (after the COVID-19 grant funds freeze) and in the context of this ongoing crisis which impacted many people working on this project.

Impact on Students:
We will be collecting data on the impact of this project over the next few years including: the number of BPS school staffs that participate in the training, the number of schools where young people support that adult-professional learning, and the number of school communities that take further action to support undocumented and immigrant students after participating in the training.

Teacher Leadership and School Community:
We are a cross-site team.

Working together on this project deepened the ongoing reciprocal relationship between the BTU Unafraid Educators and the Student Immigrant Movement. This working relationship matters greatly to us as people and to the work we seek to do together in solidarity with undocumented and immigrant Boston Public Schools students.

What’s Next?
We are excited to pilot our new strategy for co-facilitating professional learning, in BPS school communities, alongside two or more Unafraid leads who work in that school and are committed to sustaining the work beyond the workshop.

This approach allows school communities, who want to deepen their support of undocumented students and families, to engage in the learning together. It also cultivates and builds off of the leadership of educators who are already an organic part of a school community. Additionally, this approach allows us to move away from “one-off” workshops and towards professional learning that is one part of a school community’s commitment to supporting undocumented students and families in an ongoing way.

We believe that all of these elements will help enrich the learning that happens in our workshops and deepen their impact for Boston’s students and families.

Helping Others:
One structure that we found helpful was to meet regularly in our large group to continue to deepen our relationships with each other, collectively set our vision, and provide feedback on the process, but to also have every meeting include small-breakout groups focused on accomplishing a specific task towards our shared work.