Easing the School Load: Supporting Immigrant Families with Collaboration

This article is part of our series: Voices of Engagement. In this series, we interview the people we are listening to and learning from as we continually evolve and improve our family engagement programs.


It’s a truism that schools are asked to play an increasing role in our social safety net for families. Community collaboration is not a focus. Just last month, EdWeek published “Are We Asking Schools to Do Too Much?” In that article, Heath Oates, superintendent of the El Dorado Springs district in rural Missouri explained why. “I think the data bear out that people in society like and trust their local schools. So, it’s natural… to say, ‘Hey, let’s have the schools do that.’”

Schools can make a huge impact on families by bringing in support that already exists within the community

Ilana Steinhauer, Executive Director Volunteers in Medicine (VIM)

But one innovative organization has turned that approach on its head. Volunteers in Medicine Berkshires, a community health organization whose patient base is primarily first-generation immigrants in western Massachusetts, knows that no single service provider can do it all. So they decided to use the strengths of the school and marry them to their own strengths as a health care provider. The result is an increase in student success and family well-being.

Ready4K recently sat down with Volunteers in Medicine for an interview to find out how school districts can tap into the resources in their communities to ease the load of supporting families while increasing student success rates.


Want to learn more? Check out our interview with Ilana Steinhauer and America Lopez


Meet Volunteers in Medicine

When America Lopez first walked into Volunteers in Medicine Berkshire (VIM), she couldn’t have imagined the impact that she and Executive Director Ilana Steinhauer would make together. VIM is a small group of employees and a much larger group of volunteers who provide access to free, comprehensive health care for those in the Berkshire region who are income-qualified and uninsured or underinsured. This model drew Steinhauer to become a nurse practitioner and return to the region to work more closely with VIM. It also inspired Lopez, a mother, activist, and Mexican immigrant who quickly joined as a volunteer interpreter to give back to the community. 

community collaboration
VIM’s Community Health Worker Team

VIM doesn’t just treat medical issues. The volunteers and practitioners working at VIM seek to determine the whole landscape of what a person needs, and then work to help that person achieve health. “Our model has always included focusing on the social determinants that we can address or help address: education, housing, childcare, and finances,” explains Steinhauer. 

Just having a sign that says “¡Hola!” can make a family feel like they belong.

America Lopez, Family Liaison
Volunteers in Medicine (VIM)

And so, when the need for family support in schools became really clear, VIM teamed up with the local school district to create the bilingual family liaison position, one that Lopez is proud and honored to fill. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity


Ready4K: What sparked VIM’s interest in partnering with the school?

Steinhauer: When we think about what makes somebody healthy, 20% is the clinical care they receive. That’s it. The other 80% is everything around that person. VIM understands that the 20% is super important. But if you really want to achieve health and you ignore 80% of their situation, your clients are never going to be healthy people. Of course, one person can’t do it all. Clinical people can do the clinical care and they can do it really well, but they have to be supported by these other people to help address the other things.

community collaboration
Ilana Steinhauer in her role as clinical director and nurse practitioner, treating a patient.

We started to see that basically the parallel thing is happening in schools. Teachers can’t be expected to teach and manage everything else that is happening around them and neither can the administrators.  The schools are always underfunded or they don’t have enough support. Just in September, we welcomed 20 brand new people who left their country because it was not safe and a place that they could be. We have teachers able to teach, but there is so much other support needed around those teachers to help kids and their families thrive.

It’s easy to forget the importance of collaboration because everyone is so busy and so overworked and we just miss out on this huge opportunity to be one community working together. 

Ilana Steinhauer, Executive Director Volunteers in Medicine (VIM)

People really want their children to succeed in school. They want their children to have this amazing education, and they want to be engaged. They just need access to be able to understand how to do this. The position was created to really help the parents and to give them a voice so that they can feel comfortable talking about issues that they have at schools. It can be enrolling their children, training if they want remote learning, or having a conversation with someone they trust.

Why did the school district need a family liaison position?

Lopez: So many parts about school are hard for people in my community to understand. For example, the registration process is really complicated. There is no clear step-by-step process, and the content isn’t available in Spanish.  I helped a family register their child earlier this year, and it took three weeks. I worked with the school to make some changes to the process, and now it takes a few days.

Remote schooling also caused a lot of confusion. Many people in the Latino community were asking where to find resources to learn how to use a computer, because remote schooling was very complicated. 

community collaboration
America Lopez in her role as immigrant family liaison at the Berkshire Hills School District, briefing a group of parents of rising middle school students
What impact has this collaboration had on the school?

Steinhauer: In the past month, we’ve seen this huge transition in how the school is approaching the community. They’re rethinking how the registration process happens. They’re putting a lot of effort into making the first encounter at school a welcoming one. People still have questions about other processes, like how after-school activities happen. Those are things that the school wants to change and just needed that support to start to bring in the community and communication.

America’s role [as family liaison] is offering the support to make that happen. For kids who have behavioral issues, there’s a collaborative with the pediatricians office, the school, and behavioral health. At the pediatricians office, they have community health workers or nurses who can coordinate care for these students.  Schools can make a huge impact on families by bringing in support that already exists within the community.

How can schools get help from other organizations?

Steinhauer: I think that a great place to start is to consider collaborations the school district can have with organizations that exist. For example, VIM meets every other week with all the agencies that work with the immigrant population. We check in to identify gaps and then identify who needs to fill the gap, which organization’s mission the issue falls under. We’re also able to see where gaps still exist. 

It’s a lot of work to actually get agencies to sit down and have that conversation. It’s easy to forget the importance of collaboration because everyone is so busy and so overworked and we just miss out on this huge opportunity to be one community working together.  But, it is absolutely worth it.

No one has to manage 100% of a person as one agency, or as one mission. Collaboration takes away those silos that exist. It allows for communication between agencies and families. It allows the place of trust to be in multiple areas. This way, if somebody feels the most trust with their pediatrician or their school, it allows that place to hold that trust. At the same time, it allows for communication and collaboration with other agencies to ensure people have everything they need.  No one has to do it by themselves. 

What can schools do to help people feel welcome?

Lopez: I think it’s important to offer bilingual training for parents to help children access virtual learning. Also streamline processes like registration and set clear steps for people to follow. Translate content into Spanish, and make it easy to read. When you have a lot of resources translated into other languages, families feel welcomed when they go into schools.  Just having a sign that says “¡Hola!” can make a family feel like they belong.

Other Resources

We are very grateful to Ilana and America for sharing their insights from the field. We hope that you will be inspired to reach out to your community collaborators.

If you are interested in reading more about community collaboration, check out our previous Voice of Engagement article on solving chronic absenteeism with community help.

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