American communities have traditionally prided themselves on being welcoming places that foster a sense of security and offer helping hands for fellow community members. And it’s important to extend the characteristic warmth of our communities to the immigrants and refugees who compose roughly 13 percent of the U.S. population. Currently, there are over 4.7 million foreign-born students enrolled in pre-kindergarten to postsecondary education, representing six percent of the total U.S. student population. Another 20 million students are the children of foreign-born parents. Ensuring access to high-quality learning opportunities and safe and welcoming school communities is vital in supporting the civic, linguistic, and economic integration of immigrants, refugees, and their families. By supporting these families, our communities will help build the next generation of American leaders.
Long-term success for new Americans depends upon a cradle-to-career strategy that supports effective and innovative education programs. This is why the Department of Education is determined to improve the educational outcomes of early learning, elementary, secondary, adult education and postsecondary students from immigrant and refugee families, especially those who are not yet proficient in English.
English learners (ELs), many of whom come from immigrant and refugee families, face significant opportunity and achievement gaps compared to their non-EL peers. To close those gaps, we have and will continue to share resources that will help states, districts, and individual programs strengthen their educational offerings. By leveraging the rich cultural and linguistic assets that ELs, including immigrants and refugees, bring to the classroom, we will enable them to achieve their full academic potential and enrich the education experience of all children, youth and adults.
Successful immigrant and refugee integration takes a concerted effort on the part of the federal government, states, and local civic, nonprofit, faith-based, private sector, and philanthropic leaders. On Thursday, Sept. 17, President Obama launched the Building Welcoming Communities Campaign, which invites local communities to commit, collaborate, and act on a set of principles to aid new American integration. These principles focus on building inclusive, welcoming communities that advance efforts in the core areas of civil, economic, and linguistic integration. The campaign recognizes the significance of local efforts given that each community has unique circumstances and opportunities. We ask that communities heed the call to create welcoming environments for new Americans in their own schools, neighborhoods, homes, agencies, and institutions. Encouraging broader participation in civic life, providing hubs where skills and job training can be developed, and supporting English language acquisition are clear steps that communities can take to ensure that new Americans feel accepted and supported in the places they call home. Enabling each other to succeed is the cornerstone of all successful communities.
To support these efforts, we will continue to provide critical resources and information to help schools, communities, state and local education agencies, institutions of higher education, and educators better serve this population and their families. One such resource, a Department-sponsored webinar series, focuses on key areas of the Building Welcoming Communities Campaign.
Libia Gil is the assistant deputy secretary and director of the Office of English Language Acquisition at the U.S. Department of Education.
Johan Uvin is the acting assistant secretary of the Office of Career, Technical and Adult Education at the U.S. Department of Education.