WITS Talk: Supporting Newcomers in Chicago Elementary Schools 

Jackson MayEvents, Partnerships, Support, Volunteers

Panelists discuss how to best support newcomers at the January WITS Talk at FactSet.

On January 25th, 2024, WITS presented the first WITS Talk of the new year at FactSet. This WITS Talk focused on how school communities are adapting to the influx of newcomers in Chicago Public Schools, as well as best practices for supporting students who have experienced trauma and students who are learning English.  

Chicago has welcomed an unprecedented number of migrants this year, and upwards of 2,000 of them are students enrolled in Chicago Public Schools (CPS). School administrators, teachers, support staff, and fellow students have been supporting newcomers and welcoming these students into their school communities. 

WITS welcomed a panel of experts to provide valuable context to the challenges Chicago Public Schools might face while supporting newcomers: Meg Heistand, Olimpia Bahena, Amber Przbyla, and Elva Bahena. Meg Heistand is a WITS Associates Board member and a long-time mentor with the Chicago White Sox at Minnie Minoso Academy. Dr. Olimpia Bahena serves as Deputy Chief Language and Cultural Education Officer at CPS and serves on the WITS Board of Directors. Amber Przbyla is a licensed Art Therapist and Professional Counselor with The Family Institute at Northwestern University. Finally, Elva Bahena serves as the Assistant Principal at WITS partner school Talcott Fine Arts and Museum Academy. 

Building Community Better: Panelist Insights 

Panel moderator Tena Letona, CEO at WITS, kicked off the discussion by asking Bahena about what her office is doing for immigrants coming into Chicago Public Schools. “We’ve had many different waves of immigrants over the years,” Bahena said. “It’s a part of our cities’ history. We face continuous unpredictability and a lot of learning. English language program teachers are assigned to schools based on the number of migrant students in that school. The challenge is that there’s no [bilingual] people to fill these positions.”  

Bahena goes on to address that the issues are not limited to students learning English. “What’s critical is the cultural aspect of this process,” Bahena said. “We are learning that some students have zero literacy skills, in English or any other language. It starts with the social-emotional aspect.” 

Tena went on to ask Elva Bahena to shed light on the issue from the educator’s perspective, and what resources they had in place to aid this process. Bahena stated that this is a loaded question. “We were not ready,” Bahena said, “one day you just have twenty to twenty-five families arrive, which is one-fifth of the schools’ population, from Venezuela, Guatemala, and Peru.” Many of these migrants had been traveling for up to three years to get to where they are today.  

“Staff-wise we did not have the numbers,” Bahena continued, “we were slowly realizing the parents themselves couldn’t read the paperwork we were giving them. Non-classroom staff sat down with families to learn how to communicate and fill out forms that they do not understand.” To make matters worse, CPS was hit by yet another, much larger wave of migrant families soon after the first.  

“It’s been a long journey for them and it’s still ongoing, with some families moving on to other places like Denver and Massachusetts,” Bahena said. “With low levels of education and in some cases no schooling at all, it will be challenging for them, but they are excited to be here.” 

Tena turned the mic over to Meg Heistand to talk about her experience. “I’ve had a long relationship with WITS and have had a program at the White Sox since 2007. Through our WITS program, I’m currently paired with a student from Venezuela. The most important thing I’ve learned with her is to meet her wherever she’s at. WITS offers a lot of bilingual books.” Heistand laughs: “I will often get the accent wrong on a word and she’s quick to correct me.” 

Finally, Tena asked Amber Przbyla to provide insight, through her unique clinical lens, on how best to work with these students. “We all need to expect the unexpected, check our biases, and refrain from making assumptions,” Przbyla told the group. She went on to emphasize the importance of non-verbal communication. “English learners look to body language. Non-verbal queues are a wealth of information. It could be all smiles one day, and a total shutdown the next. You’re going to see children who have a lot of difficulty regulating.” 

Przbyla continued, “they have been under so much stress and trauma. Remember it’s not about us. The best thing we can do is show up and be accepting. You most likely will be the first reoccurring adult figure in their life outside of their parents.” 

How WITS Can Help

To wrap things up, Tena asked the panelists about the importance of these adult relationships when supporting newcomers, and how WITS benefits these incoming students in their transition. “The literacy aspect is so important,” Olimpia Bahena said. “They don’t have those relationships. Now a person is coming every week, and they start making connections through the books, realizing this word is just like this word in Spanish. It creates a powerful connection.” 

“These kids are young, and their minds are malleable,” Przbyla said. “When we show up and build safety, we’re priming them to learn…It’s all going to come out in the relationship and through their interests. You have an impact, and you are changing their lives in ways that you can’t even imagine.” 

Meg Heistand, as a WITS mentor ten years strong, shares: “I did not like to read as a kid. If I had this, I would’ve liked reading so much more. When a student shares something personal, when they feel comfortable, those small indications that they are becoming more comfortable with adults in general… that’s what melts my heart.” 

Lastly, Elva Bahena shares her hopes and goals for the future. “Talcott’s mission is to make sure our students have a repertoire of being bilingual and multicultural. Migrants are only enhancing this mission. To integrate and adapt, it’s an adjustment. We have to ensure that we’re supporting the students who are already here and the new students at the same time. We have to accept that we can’t fix the situation, but we can teach them.” 

Key Takeaways

Since August 2022, Chicago has welcomed an unprecedented 25,000 migrants. It is difficult to track the exact number, 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 the last school year.  

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. As the WITS community grows to include migrant students from migrant families in several of our student mentorship programs, we need to ensure that we are doing everything in our power to create a welcoming atmosphere. 

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