Welcoming Migrant Students Into WITS Programs

Kristen StrobbeDiversity Initiatives, Mission & Outcomes, Teachers

WITS mentor reads with Walsh student.

WITS centers our work around the core value of building community. Every WITS program is its own special community, a place where all students are welcome and mentors and students connect over reading and sharing stories. This year, the WITS community has grown to include welcoming migrant students from migrant families in several of our student mentorship programs.

Since August 2022, Chicago has welcomed an unprecedented 25,000 migrants. It is difficult to track the exact number when welcoming migrant students, but it is estimated that more than 2,000 migrant students are currently enrolled in Chicago Public Schools (CPS) and the district has 7,000 more English learners this school year compared to last school year. Whereas a typical school year sees only sees an increase of about 3,000 English learners year over year. Most migrants are seeking asylum from various Latin American countries, with a large number coming from Venezuela. Schools in the district are doing their best to accommodate the new arrivals with many of the schools acting as hubs for clothing and other supplies, access to medical care, and providing translation services. This is all in addition to providing instruction for students.

WITS staff and mentors get the unique and special opportunity to support these newcomers in our programs.

Here is how the WITS community is stepping up and meeting this pressing need:
  • WITS is filling our program library with more bilingual books and will work to print program materials in Spanish and English. This is a great opportunity for mentors to learn from their students about their home language and let them feel success in an environment they are comfortable in. We have WITS mentors who are brushing up on their Spanish skills and a few who are reading Spanish aloud for the first time.
  • WITS mentors are bringing their own language skills to the table. WITS is leveraging our mentors that are bilingual in English and Spanish to work with students who are native Spanish speakers. Some mentors are reading with more than one migrant student (WITS program sessions are typically one student paired with one mentor). Many newcomers fled unstable conditions in their home country and have had long journeys to America. Being in a new country, a new city, and now a new school is overwhelming and stressful. We’ve found that pairing together students with shared experiences to work with one mentor puts the students at ease and makes for a more comfortable WITS sessions.
  • WITS mentors are expanding their expectations for what a traditional WITS experience looks like. New arrivals are experiencing unstable housing or long commutes to get to school which can affect attendance at school and at WITS programs. Migrant students may transfer schools suddenly if permanent housing becomes available. Some migrant families have decided to leave Chicago, some seeking warmer weather or traveling back to their home country. It is a goal of WITS programming to have the same mentors and students work together consistently for the entirety of the year, but in cases where students are facing significant uncertainty, such as the newcomers in our programs, we must adjust expectations for student attendance and attrition.
  • WITS staff are sharing resources with mentors on how to best support migrant students and students whose school communities are welcoming the new arrivals. It’s vital that WITS mentors stay informed on this issue, seek help from WITS staff when needed, and, most importantly, show up for their students consistently and be kind and active listeners. Check out the resources listed below for a place to start:
What more can the WITS community do to support migrant students and their families?
  • Join us on Thursday, January 25th at noon for a panel discussion “Building Community: Supporting Newcomers in Chicago Elementary Schools.” Register here.
  • Spread the word about volunteering with WITS! We need more mentors who are bilingual in Spanish and English. If you know someone who would love to get involved with WITS, please email Daphne Robinson at daphner@witschicago.org.
  • Consider donating to WITS to help fund our mission and provide additional resources to WITS students.

Here is a helpful roundup of Chicago non-profit organizations that are taking material and monetary donations to support new arrivals.