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Interagency collaboration for culturally diverse immigrant children and families: a case study with historical and contemporaneous perspectives.

Interagency collaboration is critically needed to address an exponentially increasing immigrant population in the United States. The foreign-born population has more than doubled since 1970, when it had reached a low of 5 percent. During the 1990s, more than 13 million people moved to the United States, averaging well over a million immigrants per year. The 2000 census reported that the foreign-born population in the United States exceeded 31 million; by March 2002, this population had risen to 32.5 million, according to the U.S. Current Population Survey. Forty-seven million U.S. residents (nearly one in five) speak a language other than English at home, according to the 2000 census (Capps, Passel, Perez-Lopez, & Fix, 2003).

Public schools saw a 40.7 percent increase enrollment of English language learners (ELLs) in 2003-04, compared to the enrollment of ELL learners in 1993-94. This group has more than doubled in size over the past 15 years, while the population that speaks only English expanded by just a fraction. ELL enrollment has increased at nearly seven times the rate of total student enrollment (Padolsky, 2005). Given these demographics, it is paramount to support school personnel through interagency collaboration for the following reasons.

First, educators are increasingly asked to: 1) teach ELLs; 2) develop a culturally sensitive curriculum for immigrant children from so many different cultures; 3) be knowledgeable about their students and their families' culturally different child-rearing practices (e.g., Bhavnagri & Gonzalez-Mena, 1997; Gonzalez-Mena & Bhavnagri, 2000, 2001; Patel, Power, & Bhavnagri, 1996); 4) perform multiple roles (e.g., as social workers, health personnel, nutritionists, inclusive teachers, family and community educators, curriculum specialists) in the classroom (Bhavnagri & Vaswani, 1999); and 5) be accountable to multiple stakeholders through students' performance assessments. These overwhelming demands on school personnel can be better addressed through interagency collaboration.

Second, there is a paradigm shift toward collaboration with community agencies to promote parental involvement, school reform, professional development of teachers, and students' academic success (e.g., Comer, 1997; Epstein, 1995, 1996; National Parent Teacher Association [NPTA], 2004; Roberts, Rule, & Innocenti, 1998; Weiner, 1993). The 2001 theme issue of Childhood Education, "The Global Village: Migration and Education" (Bhavnagri, 2001), for example, included multiple articles on school partnerships with community agencies that resulted in effective education for immigrants.

Third, although special needs experts advocate for interagency collaboration, they typically do so for children with disabilities and not for immigrant children. English as a second language (ESL) experts, on the other hand, are advocates for immigrant children, but they primarily focus on enhancing their language competencies (e.g., Rong & Preissle, 1998) and not on interagency collaboration to support immigrant children. Therefore, the authors, in presenting this case study on the International Institute of Metropolitan Detroit (IIMD), advocate for interagency collaboration to help immigrant children and families.


The International Institute movement began under the leadership of Edith Terry Bremer of the YWCA. Bremer, a social welfare and settlement house worker, established the first institute in New York City in 1910 (Mohl, 1981). "Its purpose was to assist newly arrived and second generation immigrant girls and women by providing English classes, recreational and club activities, and assistance in dealing with housing, employment, naturalization, and other problems" (Mohl, 1982b, p. 118). The YWCA, at the end of World War I, formed 55 International Institutes to provide social services to immigrants. The IIMD was founded in 1919.

IIMD's historical collaborations mentioned in the "Then" section below are based on archival data, titled International Institute of Metropolitan Detroit Records (1919-1981). To make the historical data more relevant, a brief reference is made to the institute's current services (based on Web site research and phone inquiries) in the "Now" section below. We also discuss the lessons learned from the collaborations in the past and the present.

Public School Collaboration: Children's Education and Support

Then: By the 1920s, immigrants to the United States were concentrated in cities in the north and midwest, such as Detroit. Pound (1940) reports that between 1910-20, Detroit's population increased 111 percent, from 465,766 to 993,678 citizens. Since child labor laws and compulsory school attendance were more strictly enforced in the north and midwest regions, such as Detroit, than in the south (Box 3, Folder 19, 1928, IIMD), these cities also saw a marked increase in enrollment of immigrant schoolchildren.

IIMD collaborated with public schools to offer special classes in English for these foreign-born children. In 1927, as many as 17 such classes were available and enrolled 416 children, who probably spoke no English or had a very limited knowledge of it.

Special attention was given to these foreign children's classes in order to give them[,] in as short a time as possible[,] sufficient knowledge of English to grade them in their proper grades. Many of these children were new arrivals in the country and some very interesting experiments were carried out with these children. (Box 3, Folder 15, 1928, IIMD)

Regretfully, the archival documents do not describe these "interesting experiments." We can only assume that the teachers used some innovative strategies for teaching English at a rapid rate in order to help them catch up with their peers.

In collaboration with the Institute, the Detroit Public Schools offered evening classes to all Detroit residents. We understand that this collaboration played out in the following manner: The Detroit Public Schools continued teaching their formal and prescribed academic curriculum. However, immigrant students who needed assistance in English language and preparation for citizenship would also attend these courses in English offered at the Institute. In another possible scenario, adolescents who were initially interested only in learning the rudimentary, everyday skills of English proficiency and citizenship preparation offered at IIMD would be encouraged by IIMD personnel to further their education and obtain a high school diploma at Detroit Public Schools.

To further serve the immigrant children, IIMD provided vocational counselors and a visiting teachers program, which were already offered by the public schools, with which they were collaborating. They believed that these two approaches, "while of great value to all children[,] are of inestimable value to American born children of foreign parentage" (Box 3, Folder 19, 1930, IIMD). "Visiting teachers" did not refer to classroom teachers doing home visits, but rather to teachers whose full-time job was to visit homes and communities.

Now: IIMD still collaborates with Detroit Public Schools in teaching ESL. They offer multicultural programs in schools and cultural sensitivity training for working with parents. They also collaborate with Wayne State University in seeking foreign students as volunteers and in organizing the International Art Festival.

Lessons Learned: Thus, through collaboration, IIMD optimized its available resources and provided seamless, not fragmented, services--an approach that is still worth learning and highly recommended (Rosenblum, DiCecco, Taylor, & Adelman, 1995).

School personnel can collaborate with similar agencies and universities to provide cultural and linguistic services. Additionally, doing home visits is a strategy worth re-examining for current immigrants. Bhavnagri and Krolikowski (2000) report that this strategy has been very effective in reaching immigrant children and at-risk children.

Social Services Collaboration: Family Life Education and Support

Then: IIMD sent and received referrals from welfare, employment, and legal agencies to provide family life education and support to immigrant families. Some of the groups they received referrals from were the United Community Services Nationality Department, Veterans Administration, United Foundations, Red Cross, Catholic Charities, Visiting Teachers, Women's Hospital Social Services, American Cancer Society, Salvation Army, Methodist Children's Home, County Department of Social Welfare, Detroit Orthopedic Clinic, Traveler's Aid, Grosse Pointe Woods Community Club, Legal Aid Bureau, and Polish Relief Organization (Kwitkowsky, 1955).

IIMD provided direct services to their clients on the immigration and naturalization processes and family reunification (Sickels, 1945); educational and vocational guidance; personal, family, and marital adjustment; and physical and mental illnesses. At other times, they served by collaborating with other agencies (Kwitkowsky, 1955). For example, Mohl (1982b) reports that International Institutes collaborated with the Red Cross to provide first aid-related training for immigrant women.

The intake referrals recorded their clients' ethnic origins, because the institute's workers were required to provide services based on the cultural patterns of a specific ethnic group. Ethnicity was not labeled by nationality, because ethnic groups could be living in more than one country (e.g., Armenians could be from Turkey or Greece) and a country would have multiple ethnic groups (e.g., immigrants from Yugoslavia were specifically labeled as Serbians, Croatians, Slovenians, Macedonians, Bulgarians, and Montenegrins).

They also collaborated with multiple agencies to help them find jobs and provided supportive encouragement, which many immigrants needed (Sickels, 1951). For example, IIMD had a formal, yet very close, relationship with the Michigan State Employment Service to help immigrants whose language problems made it difficult for them to get jobs. In the 1950s, the IIMD worked with the Michigan Employment Security Commission and provided employment counseling as well as vocational services to the immigrants who were admitted under the Displaced Persons Act of 1946 (Frontczak, 1953). Frontczak explained the reason for this collaboration as follows:

The cooperation in this endeavor between the tax supported agency and the private agency grew out of the separate strivings of the two facilities to serve the same group of people, with recognition on both sides that neither was able to provide the best possible service alone. (p. 63)

Now: IIMD collaborates with United Way and other shelter and food agencies to provide such necessities as furniture and other household items, clothing, infant formula, and diapers. They collaborate with hospitals to help those without medical insurance to find free medical services and get handicap medical equipment. They also try to provide transportation services.

They collaborate closely with many social service agencies (e.g., Polish American Congress, Latin Americans for Social and Economic Development, Red Cross, and Catholic Charities) as well as government agencies in providing social and legal services. They also offer employment referral services by collaborating with employers.

Lessons Learned: First, schools can collaborate with agencies that provide welfare, employment, and legal services to support at-risk families, including immigrant families. Second, teachers need to realize that immigrant families are under a lot of stress because they are often alone in a new country with no family support. Therefore, parents are expending most of their psychological energy and time to address their basic survival needs, such as getting a job, learning English, and worrying over family reunification; thus pressed for time and overwhelmed with psychological stress, they are less likely to participate in school activities. Chaldean immigrant students also report that their parents experience stress caused by separation from family members, economic hardships, and lack of English competencies (Rubin & Bhavnagri, 2001).

Third, schools need to gather relevant cultural information about the families they serve, showing sensitivity similar to the intake interviews at IIMD. According to Mostert (1998), today's successful school-community collaboration necessitates gathering information on families' ethnic and cultural backgrounds and their belief systems. Such efforts result in five positive outcomes: 1) we gain the family's perspective; 2) we become acquainted with their cultural uniqueness, which then helps us to offer culturally sensitive intervention; 3) we eliminate any biases and mistaken impressions; 4) we increase our possibilities of efficient action; and 5) we increase the opportunities of the families who interact with us.

Communication Agencies' Collaboration: Community Education and Support

Then: The International Institutes also worked with communication agencies, such as radio networks and the foreign-language press, in order to reach out to pockets of immigrant communities in the urban areas (Mohl, 1982a). They used the media to publicize their activities and promote their education goals. The workers at the Institutes translated materials related to legal subjects, unemployment benefits, housing, and other subjects about which many immigrants were greatly misinformed and needed to know. Many International Institutes also put out their own monthly newsletters, pamphlets, and other similar publications.

Now: They continue to provide community education via community announcements on ethnic radio stations, press releases, and pamphlets in Spanish regarding their services.

Lessons Learned: Schools need to effectively reach immigrants through public service announcements done in collaboration with communication agencies, such as ethnic radio and television stations. They also need to collaborate with agencies that provide translations.

Collaborations With Industries and Businesses: Adult Education

Then: The IIMD worked in close partnership with industries by regularly distributing publicity materials about the Detroit Public Evening Schools, including their locations and course offerings. They offered this information at the beginning of each semester in September and January. The archival data of 1928 (Box 3, Folder 15, IIMD) reported that during the previous year, "121 industries responded and pledged themselves to assist in conveying the message of opportunity offered by those schools to their foreign-born employees." They further noted that "year in and year out[,] [the] response from Detroit's major industries is exceedingly helpful and reassuring."

As a result of this collaboration, in 1927, the Detroit industries sent 8,425 of their workers to study in the evening high schools and 5,324 workers to study in the evening elementary schools. Their collaboration resulted in a total evening enrollment of 33,269 high school students and 24,573 elementary students. Twenty-five percent of the high school students and 75 percent of the elementary students were foreign-born. The teachers of these classes were specially trained to teach English at the elementary grade level.

The citizenship teachers who prepared students for naturalization were nearly all hired from the civics departments of the day public schools. Thus, the collaboration between industry and the Institute was further supported by the public schools, as they provided space and qualified staff. Kwitkowsky (1955) reports that the Institute collaborated with business organizations (e.g., the banks and insurance companies).

Now: IIMD partners with industries and businesses that require such services as cross-cultural sensitivity training, ESL lessons, and foreign language study in order to compete in a global economy. They are currently providing adult education by collaborating with six banks, because many immigrants do not have a credit history or enough savings for retirement, and many do not know how to take out a mortgage.

Lessons Learned: Schools need to collaborate with businesses, such as banks, to teach financial management skills to adult immigrants. Bhavnagri (2001) emphasizes that immigrant families need school and community support to learn about banking procedures and how to apply for loans.


We have examined the links between our historical case study and contemporary conceptual frameworks to deconstruct the concept of collaboration for serving children, and use the collaboration construct to appreciate IIMD's contributions to our current understandings.

First, the United States General Accounting Office (1992) reported that linking services with families at risk appeared to be more effective than school reform efforts (cited in Roberts, Rule, & Innocenti, 1998). IIMD recognized the need to look beyond schooling. Therefore, they linked multiple services with at-risk immigrant families, thus maximizing their effectiveness.

Second, educators report success when they address the "whole child" by collaborating with families and community agencies (Bhavnagri & Vaswani, 1999), an approach historically used by IIMD. Federal legislation has begun to place a higher priority on linking education with other support services that help children develop physically, socially, mentally, and emotionally (Lopez, Torres, & Norwood, 1998). IIMD, too, linked education, welfare, communication, businesses, and industrial institutions; thus linking support services and serving the "whole" immigrant child by including the family.

Third, according to Aguirre (1995), today's "comprehensive, integrated services for children" should be family-focused, involve major stakeholders in addressing solutions, be broad-based yet flexible, and finally, improve community-wide conditions. Given this conception, it is safe to say that the IIMD attempted to provide a family-focused, comprehensive, and integrated service by collaborating with all the major stakeholders in the community in order to improve the conditions of immigrant children and families.

Fourth, the Annie E. Casey Foundation's framework for understanding and strengthening vulnerable families in the United States suggests how society should provide economic opportunities that help families secure jobs and build assets; social networks that offer support and promote positive relationships; and high-quality and accessible formal supports and services that families can trust (Nelson, 2000). This IIMD case study documents how to address the three components of this framework to strengthen immigrant families.

Fifth, Wimpfheimer, Bloom, and Kramer (1990) recommend four principles for effective interagency collaboration: 1) agencies mutually recognize a common problem; 2) agencies consider the issue as sufficiently high priority for them to collaborate and take action; 3) agencies have the authority, influence, and resources to address their common concerns; and 4) agencies are creative, remain flexible, and combine unconventional ingredients in novel ways to achieve the desired outcomes. This case study illuminates how IIMD incorporated these principles effectively.

In conclusion, the overall lesson learned from this case study is that interagency collaboration is a strategy worth pursuing.


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Navaz Peshotan Bhavnagri is Associate Professor, College of Education, Wayne State University, Detroit, Michigan. Sue Krolikowski is a mentor of teachers and recent doctoral recipient. Thrity G. Vaswani is a Psychiatric Social Worker, Fairview Development Center, Costa Mesa, California.
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Title Annotation:International Institute of Metropolitan Detroit
Author:Vaswani, Thrity G.
Publication:Childhood Education
Article Type:Case study
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2006
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