Practical PR
Making Connections: How One Elementary District Supports Families New to the United States

By Jennifer Tempest Bova

In Fall 2022, Des Plaines CCSD 62 welcomed over 100 families from Venezuela who came to the United States as asylum seekers. Historically the district has seen an increase in immigrant families over the years, especially as it relates to political unrest in countries such as Ukraine, Russia, Colombia, and Venezuela.

“These families from Venezuela, in particular, came to our district during a humanitarian crisis,” said Superintendent of Schools Michael Amadei, who is now in his second year as superintendent. “They needed our compassion and help. When I reflect on October of 2022, I continue to be very proud of how our staff came together to support these families.”

Within these needs, the district understood additional complexities were being discovered in children coming in with a level of trauma that would require social-emotional sup­port as well. As the months passed, many of the asylum seekers left the district, finding homes outside of the Des Plaines community.

However, the journey for District 62 was just beginning.

Located in the northwest suburbs of Chicago, Des Plaines CCSD 62 is an elementary district that serves children in Des Plaines and portions of Rosemont. District 62 educates approximately 4,700 students from Pre-K through eighth grade and has approximately 850 employees. With­in the hallways of the 12 schools of District 62, over 60 languages are spoken, a reflection of the culturally diverse learning community the dis­trict serves.

North Elementary School is one of District 62’s nine elementary schools and its largest. Normally, the school’s enrollment is at around 400 children. At the time of this writing, North Elementary School’s enrollment is at approximately 550 children, a significant increase due to families arriving from countries in Europe and Central Asia including Ukraine, Russia, and Kyrgyzstan.

“Welcoming our newcomers is such a privilege at North School,” said North’s principal, Carolyn Allar. “Knowing that we might be a student’s first experience in a school in the United States is a big honor that comes with excitement and planning.”

Newcomer students are provided with a unique and enriching first day experience. They continue to receive support during their time at school.

“Our teachers have directions translated for our students and we make sure we partner them up with another student or two who might also speak the same language,” said Allar. “North truly represents a diverse population of students and we are honored to continue to serve such a diverse community.”

While most of these families are in attendance at North Elementary, the district has also created new­comer centers at two middle schools, Algonquin Middle School and Chip­pewa Middle School. The newcomer center at Chippewa Middle School was implemented in 2023 to better accommodate the additional new­comer students.

“We have loved welcoming our newcomer students to Chippewa Middle School,” said Principal Juliana Vissering. “It has been an incredible experience to not only learn from them about their cultures and background but to also share those experiences with our entire student body.”

Over 60 languages are spoken in District 62; the three primary languages after English are Spanish, Russian, and Polish.

Elizabeth Juskiewicz is Dis­trict 62’s Director of Second Language Programs. She has always had a passion for creating collaborative partnerships with families as she recognizes that

Columns are submitted by members of the Illinois Chapter of the National School Public Relations Association

those school-community relation­ships support student learning and growth. Juskiewicz also rec­ognizes the challenges the district faces today.

“With the increasing enrollment at North Elementary School, we recognize that there is an equity question creeping to the top of our concerns as more and more children are being supported in one particular school,” said Juskiewicz. “In addition to needing to learn English and academics, many of these children and their families have come to the United States with trauma, needing significant resources and supports from the district.”

For the 2023-2024 school year, the district has hired an additional three full-time English Learner teaching positions at North Ele­mentary School including a Russian bilingual teacher. Social workers, interventionists and other roles were also added to support the increased enrollment and student needs. In addition, the district has hosted several family nights in the spring and fall of 2023 and held a targeted August 2023 registration event to enroll newcomer families.

Due to the increasing enrollment at North Elementary School, the district has had to find creative ways to house students, including explor­ing installation of two modular classrooms on site to accommodate the music and art classes, a cost of approximately $220,000.

Said Amadei, “Our Board of Education has been extremely supportive of all our efforts and understands that introducing modular classrooms is not an ideal solution, but all children deserve the right to a public education. With that in mind, the necessity exists for us to find appropriate space for them to learn.”

Supporting families new to the United States is not a focus solely for District 62. Neighboring school districts such as Wheeling CCSD 21 and Skokie SD 73.5 have also had to navigate similar dynamics within their learning communities.

The district has begun to have conversations with local state legisla­tors to share its story and raise aware­ness for these unique dynamics. The efforts are just beginning but a neces­sary step in the right direction.

“It is critical that we support all families,” said Amadei. “However, it’s also critical we create an awareness regarding how our needs are chang­ing. My hope is that this awareness will lead to funding and a national response. We are a global commu­nity and I anticipate that this reality will not always be limited to a small number of school districts.”

Seeing the connection happening within the classrooms is what makes a difference.

“The students at North have been so welcoming,” said Amadei. “I have seen them take care of those who are new to the school. That is what says so much about our Dis­trict 62 community. The children are extraordinary.”

Jennifer Tempest Bova is Director of Community Relations at Des Plaines CCSD 62 and a member of the Illinois Chapter of the National School Public Relations Association.