School social workers connect families to school and community resources that enable children to learn as effectively as possible. But the estimated 8,500 school social workers in the United States face unique circumstances when working with immigrant students and their families.
Since 2019, Associate Professor Ben Roth has been one of three principal investigators on the Immigrant Student Equity Project to better understand the role of school social workers in immigrant-serving schools. The study is funded by the Spencer Foundation, which supports high-quality and innovative research on education.
According to the study, anti-immigrant sentiment and fear of immigration enforcement in the United States negatively impact academic performance among immigrant students. Those students who are undocumented or from mixed-status families face constant threats of deportation or family separation, which leads to increased rates of depression, anxiety and traumatic stress, and negative school performance, attendance and behavior. Immigrant families are often subsequently hesitant to seek help.
“There have been multiple phases to this project. We conducted pilot interviews, launched a survey, and had in-depth conversations with dozens of school social workers following the survey,” Roth says. “With funding from the William T. Grant Foundation, we are now gearing up for in-depth case studies that will involve participant observation.”
According to Roth, each researcher knew immigrant students face barriers to equity in many schools. For example, they can have difficulty registering in some districts if they lack proper documentation from their country of origin. Or little things, such as not having anyone in the front office who speaks their language, can be a big obstacle to access for immigrant parents and children. But some social workers have accomplished more besides attempting to minimize obstacles.
“We were surprised to meet so many (school social workers) across the country who go well beyond the typical scope of their role to improve equity for immigrant students,” Roth says. “They are running support groups for immigrant students, assembling information for college-bound students who do not have legal status, and helping to facilitate know-your-rights trainings for immigrant parents who are afraid of immigrant enforcement.”
Even though the study began before COVID-19, the pandemic has shaped questions to school social workers. The survey was launched in May 2020 when schools were virtual and follow-up interviews with school social workers this spring coincided with many schools beginning to resume in-person classes. Additional data will be collected this fall when schools anticipate returning to normal.
“COVID-19 has impacted immigrant communities and the schools that serve them. However, many of the barriers to equity that immigrant children face today predate the pandemic,” Roth says. “As with other research findings on social disparities during the pandemic, we find that COVID-19 has exacerbated these enduring problems as much as it has created new ones.”
Roth’s fellow principal investigators are Assistant Professor Sophia Rodriguez from the University of Maryland and Dominican University Professor Leticia Villarreal. College of Social Work Ph.D. student Karen Flynn is serving as a research assistant.
“Each phase has been different and required extensive communication," Roth says. "Are we staying true to our original research questions? How should findings from the previous phase inform data collection in the subsequent phase? This dynamic has allowed each of us to get to know each other quite well, making the project even more rewarding.”