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Helping Immigrants Discover School Options in Northwest Arkansas

March 23, 2017
Program assists families with planning children’s education

Maria Rocha is like many immigrant mothers I know. She moved to Northwest Arkansas from Michoacán, Mexico, seven years ago, with little to her name, looking to make a better life. She puts in long hours as a custodian, earning enough to pay the bills, but not much more. And while Maria speaks little English, she is constantly working to improve.

A single mom of six school-aged children, including twin girls, Maria struggles to balance work and family. She spends many days shuttling children to and from school, including a 14-year-old son with special needs. At night, she lies awake worrying about the impact these demands will have on her job.

“I really want my children to have a good education, especially my girls, so they can support themselves and not have to rely on anyone,” she says. “I want my girls to have a bright future.”

What keeps Maria going is the same thing that keeps most of us going: a desire for her children to have better opportunities. My job is to help Maria, and others in her situation, make that happen.

Judith Yañez, with the Cisneros Center for New Americans, meets with parent Maria Rocha to discuss school options in Northwest Arkansas

The daughter of Mexican immigrants myself, I work with immigrant families as an education program manager. The program, run by the Cisneros Center for New Americans, helps newcomers to Northwest Arkansas get the best education for their kids. We do it by guiding them through the process of choosing from several high-quality schools available in the region.

This can be harder than it sounds.

Northwest Arkansas families have a number of good school options for students – including traditional district schools, free public charter schools and an upcoming independent school with an accessible indexed tuition. But many new Americans, when they arrive in the region, are unaware they have any choice in their children’s education. The challenges that immigrant parents face are hard to comprehend unless you’ve lived through the experience. Because their lives are filled with competing demands – from overcoming language barriers, to securing health care, finding work and building community networks – families often have little time to search for the best school.

Maria’s story is not unusual. I met her at a community center in Springdale, Arkansas, which provides services for immigrants. She told me her six kids attended five different schools. It was a logistical challenge getting everyone where they needed to be. Maria said she was looking for a single school where all – or at least most – of her kids could attend.

Maria Rocha, with four of her children: Angel, Gildardo, Jesús Antonio and Amy

Maria Rocha, with four of her children: Angel, Gildardo, Jesús Antonio and Amy

She was also struggling to find transportation for her special needs son, whose lost access to a public school bus when she moved out of district to a home with lower rent. The stress has taken a toll.

“I can’t sleep. Sometimes, my patience is low. I have limited time to make dinner and spend time with my children,” Maria says.

The Cisneros Center works closely with schools across Northwest Arkansas to get information about all aspects of their programs. Because we have those relationships, I was able to find an option for Maria that might work. I helped her prepare an application for her twin daughters to the Ozark Montessori Academy, located close to her home. Then, Maria and I worked with her son’s school and another local agency on potential alternative transportation options.

This work is rewarding – and important.

The immigrant population in Northwest Arkansas is growing because the region’s economy is strong and creating jobs. These new Americans come seeking opportunity. Our goal is to help them tap into their potential through the most basic building block for future prosperity – a good education.

When I meet with families, I try to map what they need from a school and offer options that match those needs. We operate knowing that often the most we can do is offer the information and illuminate the different paths that are available. By doing that, we are helping to ensure education is equitable for everyone.

Maria’s story has a happy ending.

She recently learned that her twin daughters and one of her sons have been accepted into the Montessori school near their home. And her special needs son is being provided transportation through a bus transfer that his school has arranged.

“I am very grateful because I did not know this type of help existed,” Maria says. “I don’t know in the future what help I will need, so this is important for me and my children.”

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