Albany Park school supporting migrant students on their journey to a better education

For many migrant families, an important part of their journey to America is to ensure their children receive a better education.

On the city’s Northwest Side, one Albany Park elementary school is fostering a supportive environment for new arrivals.

Currently, about 300 migrant students attend Haugan Elementary School, and more are being enrolled each and every week.

The school began welcoming new arrivals with open arms last October, when they received an influx of students from Ecuador. Now, many of them are coming from Venezuela.

"We end up being the first point of contact for a lot of the families who just got off a bus yesterday from Texas, and they’re ready for their first set of warm clothes," said Heather Yutzy, principal, Haugan Elementary School.

With the help of teachers and administrators, families are finding hope — after hardship.

"Early on I made the choice that I want to receive these families the way I would want to be received if I had made this migration," said Yutzy.

Adjusting to a new school is never easy, but doing it in another country is even harder.

"We currently have students living in tents outside of the police station, we have students who have been in transit from country to country for three to four years," said Ana Suarez, teacher, Haugan Elementary School.

An ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher, Suarez is providing new arrivals with the building blocks for success.

"Really a dance of languages, you know, I’m bilingual – I speak Spanish and English – and it really depends on what I see my students need at the moment," said Suarez. "They’re happy to have friends, they’re happy to have a routine."

Principal Yutzy said migrant children are placed in classrooms with peers of their own age, but there are significant gaps in education from the schooling they received in their home countries.

"In general these families who are coming are really hungry for the opportunities," said Yutzy.

The school community has always had a large population of bilingual families so there were already many Spanish-speaking teachers on-staff. Recently, however, Yutzy has gotten creative – bringing in retired Spanish-speaking teachers, tutors and volunteers to work with students in smaller groups to help them catch up.

It’s made the transition for migrant children a seamless one.

"The school has been great in that he’s learning more and more, and now he’s teaching me," said Kimberly Solorzano.

Solorzano, who is from Venezuela and arrived in Chicago about five months ago, says she was initially worried about the language barrier when her son, Nick, started school. Now he is settled in, and Solorzano says the smooth transition for her 7th grader has been a blessing.

"We are very happy to be here, you know, the school received us, the personnel received us and it feels like a warm hug, and I’m hopeful that one day he will be able to advance and go to a very good university," said Solorzano.

Yutzy says as more migrant students become enrolled, she hopes to create a ‘newcomer academy’ – a homeroom that would allow new arrivals to settle in for a few weeks and learn some of the basics before being placed in their long-term classrooms.

In addition to educational support, Haugan Elementary School is also offering social and emotional support to migrant families. Volunteers have even been coordinating donations of clothing and other necessities for the new arrivals in attendance.