ERG SES C 06, Migration and Education
It has become increasingly clear that the refugee crisis is global in its extent, yet specific responses to the crisis are often local in nature. While politicians around the world engage in military action, diplomacy and rhetoric to shape outcomes, local communities and schools are left to cope with the new arrivals (Wimelius, Eriksson, Isaksson, & Ghazinour, 2017). In the United States, the dominant discourse of recent years has turned particularly hostile towards immigrants and refugees. In light of this, our study seeks ways to demonstrate that educators are capable of acting as agents of democracy by contesting the discourse and shifting outcomes of what is possible within their sphere of influence thereby exercising discrete forms of power and agency.
In particular, this exploratory study focuses on the ability of schools and communities with an unprecedented increase in the number of refugees relocating to their towns to respond to the needs of the newly arrived, independent of substantial support from the state and national government. We focused the study on two small communities in rural, northern Vermont in the United States. Prior to the arrival of the refugee families, these communities had a relative stable demographic composition with respect to race, ethnicity and nationality. Our study examines the capacity of the school superintendents, principals, teachers and community members to integrate refugees and the extent to which they have worked together to respond to their needs.
The study draws on social ecological systems theory (Brofenbrenner, 1979) to identify the various entities involved in the education of refugees in the communities we studied (Paat, 2013). Systems thinking is the process of understanding how things influence one another within a whole. The social ecology framework pays explicit attention to the interactions of people with the multiple dimensions of their environment. In ecological systems theory, these dimensions can be perceived as a constellation of nested subsystems concentering one another from the smaller to the larger. Each subsystem acts upon the individual in different ways. In addition to using social ecological systems in analyzing the interactions between these groups and the schools, we draw on the framework for school-community linkages (Johnson & Chrispeels, 2010).
Our research questions focus on how school leaders work with teachers and community members to enact new policies and practices that respond to the needs of the refugee students within their communities in defiance of the dominant discourse at the national level. In particular: 1) What are the policies and practices related to the reception and resettlement of refugee children in their schools and communities and how do the various actors collaborate with one another? 2) Where is there evidence of resistance, both discursive and behavioral, to the negative rhetoric about immigrants and refugees that is transpiring at the national level and what contributes to the conditions necessary to contest the dominant discourse?
To address our research questions, the Social Ecological Model was used for our qualitative case study. This theory provides a conceptualization of how immigrant families exist within a larger social structure, interconnected with other social institutions and domains (Paat, 2013). The selection of the research sites in U.S. were purposely chosen due to our familiarity with these communities in which the school districts are located. The selection of sites also reflects the fact that, Vermont is one of the most liberal states in the country, producing the likes of Bernie Sanders (United States independent Senator from Vermont who campaigned for the President of the United States in 2016). Data collection was completed in 2018 and included personal sit-down interviews with superintendents, a school district board member, directors and teachers of English Language Learning, general education teachers and a school liaison coordinator; and document analyses of publicly-available materials related to the refugee resettlement from 2016 to the present, including: school district websites and newsletters, minutes and videos of school board meetings, community newspapers, and television reports. Purposeful sampling was utilized to select the participants for this study. This technique provides rich context and detailed accounts of specific populations that have had certain experiences and knowledge of a specific phenomenon (Ravitch, 2016). The data was coded using Dedoose, a qualitative data collection web application, for the purpose of identifying emergent themes, and then these themes were shared with the superintendents for the purpose of verifying the trustworthiness of the findings.
Throughout the world, nations continue to grapple with increased migration flows into their countries and the political debate that it incurs. While some countries have been historically welcoming of asylum seekers, United States policy in recent years has become increasingly unwelcoming. Despite the policy approaches at the national level, what we have found is that small, local communities have proven to be effective actors in the refugee resettlement process. In particular, school districts, with committed leadership, can play an important role in the integration of migrant children into their new environs. In the United States, the macrosystem is currently infused with anti-refugee rhetoric because of the current political climate and the influence of President Trump and the Republican party. Despite the challenges that this national macrosystem of negative rhetoric places on its ecological subsystems, small Vermont school districts and communities (microsystems functioning together as a mesosystem) can serve as a “thin place of resistance” (Maguire, Braun, & Ball, 2018), a place where power is dispersed, and everyday resistance is able to challenge the prevailing discourse. Even though financial resources have been limited, bold individual school leaders, school boards and educators have effectively cooperated with local social service agencies and a supportive state climate to meet the needs of refugee families and, in particular, the children. Even in the worst of political circumstances, nested ecological systems are able to compensate for each other in allowing for the smooth transitioning of refugee children into a new culture. In the cases we studied, civic leaders, both in the schools and in the communities, were empowered to act as outspoken advocates and dutiful public servants in accomplishing this mission. Knowing of the possibility of these “thin spaces of resistance” is an antidote to hopelessness in these morally challenging times.
Brofenbrenner, U. (1979). The ecology of human development. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press Johnson, P., & Chrispeels, J. (2010). Linking the Central Office and Its Schools for Reform. Educational Administration Quarterly, 46(5), 738. Maguire, M., Braun, A., & Ball, S. (2018). Discomforts, opposition and resistance in schools: the perspectives of union representatives. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 1–14. https://doi.org/10.1080/01425692.2018.1443431 Paat, Y.-F. (2013). Working with Immigrant Children and Their Families: An Application of Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Systems Theory. Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment, 23(8), 954–966. https://doi.org/10.1080/10911359.2013.800007 Ravitch, S. M. (2016). Qualitative research : bridging the conceptual, theoretical, and methodological. Los Angeles: SAGE. Wimelius, M., Eriksson, M., Isaksson, J., & Ghazinour, M. (2017). Swedish Reception of Unaccompanied Refugee Children—Promoting Integration? Journal of International Migration and Integration, 18(1), 143–157. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12134-016-0472-2
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