Families may need help with food, clothes, housing, medical care, or other basic needs and the school may have a social worker, advocate, or community partner who can help. Find out what’s available if you learn of a family that needs assistance and make sure that all families hear about these services regularly and know where to get more information.


How a Community School Helps ELLs Succeed
Providing what all families want for their kids

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Working with Community Organizations to Support ELL Students

Working with Community Organizations to Support ELL Students

Young girl playing a violin

When building a support network for ELLs, community organizations can play a valuable role and offer resources that schools may not have at their disposal. Learn how to get started with these tips!

When building a support network for English language learners (ELLs), community organizations can play a valuable role and offer resources that schools may not have at their disposal in order to work with ELLs and their families. While the community schools model is one way that these partnerships can grow and thrive, a school need not be an official community school to have effective partnerships.

Bridging the gap

Organizations that work on behalf of specific immigrant communities, for example, can play an important part in helping schools bridge language and cultural gaps by providing:

  • Interpreters: Many school districts struggle to find interpreters for school events or conferences and to translate important documents for parents, especially for languages that have a lower incidence in the district. Community organizations may be able to provide intepreters, print translations, or recommendations of other translation services.
  • Cultural liaisons: It is important for schools to be sensitive to the diverse cultural backgrounds and customs of all of its students; the customs of ELL students may be very diverse when it comes to religious observances, dietary restrictions, and social expectations. Community organizations with a cultural/national affiliation can provide invaluable insight to teachers, administrators, and staff by offering trainings and workshops that focus on providing information about a specific culture or country. This may be particularly valuable when a new immigrant community begins to grow in an area that has not previously been settled by members of this community.
  • Experts on historical and political background: When welcoming students from a new immigrant community to the school, it may be helpful to learn more about the historical and political background of that community, particularly if that background has shaped immigration or resettlement patterns. For example, when refugees are resettled in a new community, understanding the conflict that displaced those refugees may go a long way in determining how to provide necessary support. This is also an important step in understanding potential traumas or hardship students may be experiencing.

Services and support

The leaders and staff of community organizations may also have many ideas about how schools, businesses, and other groups can work together to support ELL students and their families by offering:

  • After-school tutoring
  • Student internships
  • Medical services
  • Social services
  • Clothing/food drives
  • ESL classes for adults
  • Continuing education programs
  • Immigration information
  • Citizenship classes
  • Information on disaster relief

Note: Many undocumented immigrant families may forego services to which they are entitled due to fear of immigration enforcement, including food stamps, disaster relief, and medical care. In addition, they may not be eligible for other kids of benefits due to their immigration status. Being aware of these challenges can help schools meet students' most immediate needs discretely.

Getting started

If you are unsure of how to start a collaboration with your local community organizations, that's ok! Start by calling some of the organizations in your area and scheduling informal conversations to brainstorm ideas on ways that you can support each other. You may be surprised at how quickly the ideas start coming to you!

For more information, see the hotlinks section of this article, which includes a list of organizations working on behalf of different immigrant communities around the country, as well as organizations focused on the community schools model.

Hot links

Coalition for Community Schools

The Coalition for Community Schools, housed at the Institute for Educational Leadership, is an alliance of national, state and local organizations in education K-16, youth development, community planning and development, family support, health and human services, government and philanthropy as well as national, state and local community school networks.

American Educator, Fall 2015: Community Schools Edition

This edition of the American Federation of Teachers' Fall 2015 publication focuses on community schools, how they work, and how partnerships help schools, students, and families.

Latin American Youth Center

The Latin American Youth Center (LAYC) is a multicultural community-based organization in the Washington, DC area that supports youth and their families in their determination to live, work, and study with dignity, hope, and joy. The LAYC Family of Organizations is a network of youth centers, schools and social enterprises with a shared commitment to helping youth become successful and happy young adults, with the skills they need to succeed educationally, professionally, and personally.

LSNA: A Model of Successful School-Community Partnership

The Logan Square Neighborhood Association is a nationally recognized model of successful collaboration between a community organization and public schools, creating a community-centered school that serves immigrant families.

Girls Inc.

Girls Inc. is a national nonprofit youth organization dedicated to inspiring all girls to be strong, smart, and bold. With roots dating to 1864, Girls Inc. has provided vital educational programs to millions of American girls, particularly those in high-risk, underserved areas. Today, innovative programs help girls confront subtle societal messages about their value and potential, and prepare them to lead successful, independent, and fulfilling lives.

Massachusetts DOE Resources for Family and Community Involvement

The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education offers resources for family literacy and community involvement, providing information about program design and links to other useful Web sites.

Partnership for After School Education

The Partnership for After School Education (PASE), a New York City-focused organization, promotes and supports quality afterschool programs for youth, particularly those from underserved communities, enabling them to identify and reach their full potential.

Californians Together

Californians Together is a statewide coalition of parents, teachers, education advocates and civil rights groups committed to securing equal access to quality education for all children, specifically underserved English Language Learners.



You are welcome to print copies or republish materials for non-commercial use as long as credit is given to Colorín Colorado and the author(s). For commercial use, please contact info@colorincolorado.org.

Addressing Basic Needs During COVID-19: A Team Approach

Addressing Basic Needs During COVID-19: A Team Approach

Bilingual Department Staff: Brockton Public Schools

Learn how a dedicated multilingual team in the public schools of Brockton, MA has been supporting family partnerships during COVID-19. This article is part of our series on multilingual family partnerships in Brockton, MA.

Photo credit: Staff of the Brockton Public Schools' Bilingual Department

At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the city of Brockton experienced one of the highest incidence rates of COVID-19 in the state of Massachusetts. Students, families, and staff immediately began experiencing the illness, economic insecurity, trauma, and loss that COVID-19 would soon bring to the rest of the country.

One way in which Brockton Public Schools (BPS) was unique in its COVID-19 response, however, was that it already had a strong multilingual support network for families in place before the pandemic, and so the district was able to respond to the changing situation just as quickly as it unfolded.

Learn more about how staff members partnering with immigrant families responded to the impacts of COVID-19 in the following article and videos.


ELL Family Advocates

As part of the multilingual family outreach team in BPS, a team of part-time ELL family advocates works with the district community outreach director to assist families with social services. These team members also collaborate with the district's bilingual community liaisons, teachers, coaches, paraprofessionals, nurses, adjustment counselors, and administrators. Kellie Jones, director of the BPS Bilingual Education Department, explains, "A number of years ago, we started to employ part-time ELL parent advocates. Their job was to assist families with anything outside of the school system, such as housing, social services, food insecurity or health. There was someone that they could turn to in the school system to help support them with anything they needed."

She continues, "Those employees all had district cell phones and those cell phone numbers were widely publicized. When the pandemic happened, we spread the word on our website, local radio, cable access, and other channels that if families needed support, they could call staff who spoke their languages. Our staff members were available to support families right away for things that they needed."

Food Insecurity

The first, most urgent issue to deal with was food insecurity. After schools closed on Friday, March 13, 2020, staff sprang into action over the weekend to ensure that meals were available to families early the following week. What eventually evolved from those early efforts was a sustained, multi-pronged approach that included "grab and go" meal sites in families’ neighborhoods, home food deliveries, gift cards for grocery stores, and collaboration with local organizations who could manage food donations.

The district’s Bilingual Department was an integral part of the outreach that made this support possible. Multilingual staff members were in constant contact with families to let them know about the resources and support available from the district and in the community. District staff also made sure that information about help with meals was frequently included in formal and informal communication with families, some of whom didn’t know about the support or were reluctant to accept help. "We had families who were entirely quarantined due to COVID and had no access to food. So they were able to arrange food delivery and they were able to help them understand what this pandemic means," says Ms. Jones.

This was where trusting relationships and established connections within the community were invaluable as everyone navigated the early challenges and stresses of the pandemic. For example, Community Facilitator Manuela Santos shares the story of a mother who couldn’t register online for food assistance. After Manuela went to her house and stood outside while the mother tried logging on to a laptop while standing near a window, Manuela realized that the mother was entering her son’s birthday with the day first and month second, as is common in many other countries. Instead of 8/7, she was entering 7/8. Once Manuela realized the issue, the mother was able to enter the date and access benefits that would give her access to funds for groceries.

Helping ELL families with food insecurity during COVID-19

Barbara Alicea, a bilingual family advocate, talks about food insecurity during COVID-19 — and the lengths her families have gone to show their appreciation for her hard work.

Manuela Santos: How a cultural difference impacted an immigrant family's access to school meal funds

Community Facilitator Manuela Santos shares the story of a mother who couldn't access grocery funds on a debit card provided to families during COVID-19 due to a cultural difference.

School counselor Claudia Gallagher recalls an emotional conversation with a single mom during COVID

School counselor Claudia Gallagher in Brockton, MA recalls an important conversation with a single mom that made it possible for her to provide food for her family and get child care.

Addressing Other Basic Needs

In addition, the Bilingual Department staff were instrumental in:

  • providing families with clothes from a "clothing pantry" and distributing donations of winter coats for children and families
  • helping families navigate unemployment services remotely
  • helping families find housing after displacement due to job loss or a catastrophic event such as a fire
  • providing support with immigration paperwork and services
  • helping families with small daily tasks, such as getting quarters for laundry machines, taking important paperwork to the post office, and answering questions about basic services in the city

Health services and information

In addition, the Bilingual Department collaborated closely with the district’s health department, which includes many bilingual nurses as well as nurses who have extensive experience in working with interpreters. Together, the different teams put systems in place for answering families’ health and COVID-19 questions, contact tracing, running flu vaccine clinics, and running COVID-19 vaccine clinics. You can learn more about this robust health response in Multilingual Health Services and Support in Brockton, MA.

Mental health

The district support also included extensive wraparound supports for mental health. Bilingual counselors collaborated closely with family advocates and community facilitators to ensure families could find mental support where needed. Due to the staff’s close relationships with families, they were also able to identify key issues, stressors, and concerns throughout the pandemic in collaboration with the larger counseling team in the district. See more in Supporting Mental Health During COVID-19 on Brockton, MA.

An Example to Learn From

The work in Brockton, MA shows what is possible when a district supports and sustains multilingual partnerships with its families. "These support staff members have really been the key to being hungry or being full, being warm or being cold, being connected or being unconnected, being housed or being in a shelter," says Ms. Jones. "And they have really worked together to try to help as many families as they could during this time. I'm so proud of the way the system utilized existing resources and added to what we needed to try to keep families and the community afloat during this really, really hard time."


You are welcome to print copies or republish materials for non-commercial use as long as credit is given to Colorín Colorado and the author(s). For commercial use, please contact info@colorincolorado.org.

How Schools Can Help Meet Immigrant Students' Basic Needs

How to Support Immigrant Students and Families: Strategies for Schools and Early Childhood Programs

How Schools Can Help Meet Immigrant Students' Basic Needs

Students may face new challenges in having their basic needs met for a variety of reasons. Learn more about factors specifically impacting immigrant students and how to establish community partnerships that can help address some of those needs. These strategies are part of the Colorín Colorado resource guide, How to Support Immigrant Students and Families: Strategies for Schools and Early Childhood Programs.

We want to connect families with the resources they need to maintain their home and stability in the community.
Kristina Robertson, English Learner Program Administrator, Roseville Public Schools (MN)


Download PDF versions:

There is a constellation of factors that can impact an immigrant family's economic situation, along with housing or caregiving arrangements that may also be in flux.

Staying attuned to clues can help educators identify challenges students are facing. Community organizations and community schools can also play a valuable role in helping to meet the basic needs of immigrant students and families. Learn more from the strategies and resources below.

Note on seeking legal guidance

This guide includes numerous resources providing useful information for educators. While some of those resources include advocacy information, Colorín Colorado and our parent organization, public broadcasting station WETA-TV-FM, do not take political positions or participate in political advocacy.

In addition, the information in this guide should not be interpreted as legal advice. Any individual or organization seeking legal advice related to immigration issues should consult with the appropriate attorneys, local government officials, or non-profit organizations specializing in immigration law that can offer guidance. We also remind educators not to provide legal advice.

Keep in mind that immigrant families' economic situations may change

Why this matters

The ways in which immigration issues relate to families' economic situations are complex, especially when those situations or immigration policies change. Sometimes the changes are immediately visible; other times they are hidden, in part due to families' reluctance to draw attention to their situation.

Understanding how these issues are related is a good first step to addressing challenges that may impact students' abilities to be successful in the classroom. For example, students may not have some of their basic needs met. For example, breadwinners' employment situations may change because:

  • they lose employment following an immigration raid, even if they were not detained (Gándara and Ee, 2018a)
  • they choose to leave their jobs to avoid workplace immigration raids
  • they experience extended, unexpected separations
  • they are detained or deported
  • they are limited in transportation options, especially if undocumented
  • families are moving often, making it difficult to maintain employment.

In addition:

  • Immigrant families may decide not to register for benefits regarding food, housing, medical care, and disaster relief, foregoing benefits they previously used.
  • Children may be cared for by another adult, relative or older sibling.
  • Immigration proceedings can be costly.
  • Landlords and employers may exploit undocumented families.
  • Families may be scaling back on their expenses.
  • Families may be uncertain about how future policy changes will impact their situation.
  • Families may be concerned about proposed rule changes related to legal immigrants using public benefits ("public charge" rules) and deciding to turn those benefits down. See more on the "public charge" issue in our related resource section.

Related news headlines

Examples from the field

ELL administrator Kristina Robertson writes,

We are now seeing the financial effects families have experienced – for example, if a father has been the main wage earner and he is detained, the family is missing significant income. This impacts their ability to pay the rent or mortgage, buy food, and in some cases impacts transportation if the remaining parent doesn’t have a driver’s license. 

In addition, if the detained person is released on bail, our immigrant lawyer consultant said they would likely have to pay thousands of dollars for the bond. If a person is detained for many weeks, they are likely to lose their job and the family may lose their housing and have to start in a new community. 

Service providers who work with immigrant families are also beginning to see the impact of economic uncertainty on the families they serve. Lariza Dugan-Cuadra, Executive Director, of the Central America Resource Center (CARECEN), notes, "Our attorneys are doing quasi-social work. Unable to work and pay rent, many of those awaiting their immigration proceedings have become homeless or unstable in the process." 

News outlets NBC 4-New York and KCUR Public Radio have reported that many families are foregoing benefits such as food stamps through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and preliminary research presented in late 2018 shows that the number of immigrant families enrolled in SNAP dropped 10% in 2018. While there may be a variety of reasons for the change, researchers cite families' concern about immigration status as likely to be a key factor (see more on this topic in the next section about the "public charge" rule).

Kristina also confirms that she is seeing this on the ground:

We've also had a huge drop in our government food benefits program locally even for legally born children…currently our food pantries are strained to the max as families try to make use of local support…This also means they are less likely to take advantage of other school programs that their children may qualify for such as school lunch. (Personal communication, November 21, 2018)

There are also reports that some immigrant families are foregoing medical immunizations and medical appointments, while researchers with CLASP report that families are also skipping prenatal care, therapeutic services, hospital visits, and registration for programs like WIC for fear of immigration enforcement (Cervantes, Ullrich, & Matthews, 2018, p. 15).

And as a general rule, undocumented families have less access to health care and prevention services.  (You can read more about that topic in this related report from the Migration Policy Institute.) Some localities are working to help address these gaps; for example, The Washington Post reports that in April, "the school board in Las Cruces, N.M., passed a resolution promising to provide free and reduced cost meals, rides, health care, education and extracurricular services to undocumented immigrant students."

One teacher who filled out our 2017 survey on how schools are supporting immigrant students writes,

Eye-opening for me was when I took a survey of the number of students who work after school at full time jobs; often second shift late into the night. Helping to pay rent becomes a priority. Often, school falls by the wayside…It was surprising for me to find that 10 out of 10 ELLs in one particular class all worked in their home countries in agriculture as child laborers. Younger children went to school in the mornings and worked in the fields in the afternoons. Older children worked in the mornings and went to school in the afternoons.

Changes to the "public charge" rule

In September 2018, the White House announced a proposed rule change that would make it harder for legal immigrants to get green cards if they receive certain kinds of public assistance. When considering if a person is admissible to the United States as an immigrant or is eligible for legal permanent residence status, the government considers whether a person is likely to become a "public charge," meaning a person is likely to become dependent on public assistance. In August 2019, the rule change was confirmed and in early 2020, the Supreme Court ruled that the law could go into effect as legal challenges continue to make their way through lower courts. It went into effect on February 24, 2020. (See this overview in English / Spanish.)

The impact of the proposal has already been significant as many families have started to withdraw from benefit programs that they previously accessed. The Kaiser Family Foundation has produced this report on impacts of current and proposed immigration policy changes on the health of immigrant families. 

The Kaiser Family Foundation has also compiled this analysis about possible impacts on immigrant families if the public charge rule does go into effect in the future. Immigration experts estimate millions of children in immigrant families could be affected, many of whom are U.S. citizens, not including immigrants who withdraw from programs because of confusion about the new rules.

For example, PBS NewsHour reports:

Before the finalized rule was announced Monday, the National WIC Association, which advocates for state offices that oversee the federally funded USDA program that offers food and health care services to pregnant and postpartum women, as well as infants and young children who face food insecurity, said they had already seen “a staggering number of reports” of women and their U.S. citizen children dropping out of the WIC program.

“Women and their children are now forsaking vital nutrition assistance, education, and breastfeeding support out of the fear of consequence to their legal status,” the association wrote in a letter it submitted as a comment to the new rule. “This alarming trend persisted even when the proposed rule was unveiled without any consequences to an applicant’s legal status for participating in WIC.”

Benefits previously considered in this determination included cash assistance/welfare (such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families or Supplemental Security Income) or federal assistance in paying for long-term care.

Under the rule change, the list of benefits would be expanded to include:

  • non-emergency Medicaid (with some exceptions for services through school and disability programs)
  • food stamps through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)
  • enrollment in Medicare Part D program subsidies for prescription drugs
  • Section 8 rental and housing vouchers.

The rule also specifies "negative factors" for eligibility, including limited English proficiency.

Some categories of immigrants would be excluded from the rule. Green card applicants would be judged on whether they themselves use the benefits, and not on whether other family members or dependents such as children use the benefits; nevertheless, the impact on immigrants who are not using these programs is likely to extend to all members of a household.


Immigrant advocates and medical personnel are sharing numerous examples of immigrants who are not seeking medical care related to the COVID-19 out of fear of consequences for their immigration applications or fear of deportation. (The government has specified that COVID-19 care will not be used as part of public charge considerations.) This puts many immigrants and their families at risk who may work as essential personnel or who may not have qualified for federal economic relief due to immigration status.

For more on this topic, see the following resources:

Food/nutrition benefits

In addition, as Kristina noted above, schools are receiving questions about enrolling free- and reduced-price lunch programs and families are already withdrawing. Free- and reduced-price meal programs are not included in this rule, and some districts are taking steps to communicate that information to families. The Children's Health Insurance Program, or CHIP, is also excluded from the rule change. Other programs excluded from the rule are listed in this resource guide from the state of California.

For guidance on food-related benefits, the following:

Should I Keep My Kids Enrolled in Health & Nutrition Programs? (Posted February 14, 2020)

Amharic | Arabic | Burmese | Spanish | Vietnamese

Related resources and news coverage

See more about "public charge" rule change from coverage of the rule when it was first announced from Education Week, ABC News, and The New York Times. Additional analysis of possible impacts has been compiled by Grantmakers Concerned with Immigrants and Refugees (GCIR) and by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Note: If you'd like to discuss this topic with students, take a look at this lesson plan about the public charge rule change from Immigrants Rising.

Tips for getting started

  • Look for clues about what is happening in students' lives rather than asking questions.
  • Take time to listen to students when they wish to talk to you.
  • Keep an eye out for economic distress among your students.
  • While it's important not to make assumptions or draw unwanted attention to families, consider having some discreet conversations if you notice an issue.
  • Talk with counselors, social workers, or administrators about how to best support families struggling to make ends meet.
  • Think about broader solutions if there seems to be wide-scale issues impacting multiple families, including partnering with organizations that can help address basic needs.
  • Look for ways to increase access to these services broadly. One respondent to our survey wrote, "All of our immigrant families are given access to the meals program, community help, and free- and-reduced lunch when they enroll at our schools."

In addition, keep in mind the following:

  • Immigration status may impact ability to secure basic services or benefits, such as:

◦ Food
◦ Housing and utilities (such as heating assistance in the winter)
◦ Social-emotional/mental health services
◦ Medical and dental care
◦ Transportation

Recommended resources

Recommended videos 

For more ideas on helping to meet the basic needs of students, see our Community Schools project featuring Wolfe Street Academy in Baltimore, MD, as well as the videos below:

Video playlist: Educators reflect on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Need


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Ensure that students experiencing homeless have appropriate services

Why this matters

When immigrant students experience homelessness, they have additional educational rights under the federal McKinney-Vento Act (KIND and NAEHCY, 2010). Homeless students may not have documents required for school enrollment (U.S. Department of Education, 2015), yet they are still guaranteed a right to a free public education.  See more on this issue from the following:

The authors of the above report from KIND and NAEHCY explain that reasons for homelessness in this population include:

  • coming to the country unaccompanied
  • separation from family as a result of parental deportation
  • separation from family as a result of limited space/rules at homeless shelters
  • separation from family as a result of abuse, neglect, abandonment, or family discord
  • being forced to leave home as a punishment for pregnancy or revealing that they are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender.

The researchers also note that undocumented homeless youth face unique challenges because they:

  • cannot work legally
  • are not eligible for most health insurance, health care services, and financial aid.

Students may also be afraid to reveal that they are homeless, as in the story Anne Marie Foerster Luu shares in the recommended video below, "A Student Who Was Homeless." It is also important to note that some immigrant students may be:

  • sharing housing with other families
  • moving often due to immigration concerns
  • having trouble establishing housing when they arrive in a new community.

Finally, it is important to note that large immigration raids such as those in Mississippi in August 2019 can leave multiple students at risk for homelessness. The Intercultural Research Development Association explains that supports for homeless students based on the "McKinney-Vento" Act can play an important role in helping students who might have been left homeless after the raid.

Tips for getting started

We recommend the report by KIND and NAEHCY for additional legal guidelines related to this population, as well as the tips and strategies included in the guide for educators and immigration attorneys.

Recommended resources

For additional information on this issue, see the following:

Recommended videos 

Video: A student who was homeless

Video: Challenges in finding affordable housing

Video: Family mobility

Video: How community schools increase student engagement and decrease family mobility

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Keep in mind families' needs related to natural disasters

Your families may have unique needs, circumstances, and challenges leading up to, during, or in the wake of a natural disaster. Learn more about how schools can help in this related article.





See our complete reference list for works cited in this article.

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