Moral Leadership and Unwavering Respect for All Kids: A Superintendent's Perspective

Scott Kizner is the superintendent for Harrisonburg, VA schools and a 2014 nominee for Virginia's Superintendent of the Year. He was recently featured in a Washington Post article about the district's ongoing outreach to immigrant families regarding their concerns about immigration enforcement in school buildings. In this Q&A for Colorín Colorado, he talks about his district's approach and what he sees as his leadership role in those efforts.

Photo credit: WHSV-TV Channel 3, Harrisonburg, VA. Used with permission.

Can you tell us a little bit about the Harrisonburg, VA school district and your ELL / immigrant population?

Harrisonburg City Schools educates approximately 6100 students. Approximately 35% are ELL students. We are also a refugee resettlement city and we receive about 60 students a year through the resettlement agency.  Over 40 languages and 50 countries are represented by our students.

What steps is your district taking to support and communicate with families on issues surrounding immigration?

We have created a Q & A sheet for parents on their rights and how to obtain assistance. We also informed our parents on the importance of having a plan just in case they are separated from their children. We are also hosting a series of parent/community meetings to address the issues that might be of great importance to immigrants and refugees. Finally, we have established a page on our website to provide parents with resources and other information.

Tell us about the crisis team you have established.

Staffs representing the departments have been assigned as our lead to team to keep informed of events and information pertaining to immigration.  The team consists of our community coordinator, head of psychological services, assistant superintendents, HS principal, EL coordinators.  We are also working with New Bridges, an agency that serves immigrants in the Harrisonburg area. This group is prepared to respond to situations quickly if necessary including providing students and their parents support.

What are the most important steps schools can encourage families to take in the event of separation?

School divisions need to make sure emergency contact information is updated and there is clear communication and expectations shared with the school on matters related to separation, specifically who would watch the student and other information like details about physicians, allergies, etc.

As a district leader, what has been your role in directing the response to student / family anxiety and questions in recent months? 

My main role is to provide moral leadership and also make school resources available to the students, families and community.  It is also important I share what our legal role is and not to over-promise, but also take steps to alleviate fear.  Being forthright and keeping the communication channels open with the school community is critical.

Can you tell us about the guidance that the state schools chief of Virginia offered to local superintendents? 

Yes. The guidance has reinforced what we are doing and making it clear that all children residing in Harrisonburg need to be taught.

Would you share the anecdote from The Washington Post article about the mother you reassured?

A meeting was held at one of our elementary schools (Hispanic PTO meeting) on the topic of immigration soon after the President’s executive order on immigration and deportation. The meeting was well attended and I took many questions from those in attendance.  One parent was emotionally upset on the possibility that she could be separated from her child and I went over to her to show support. It was at that time that I also told parents that they must have a plan just in case they are separated.

How would you respond to school leaders who are hesitant to provide such reassurances a) because they can’t provide any guarantees about what will happen to families or b) for political reasons?  

It is important to be honest to parents on what our limitations are as a school division, but it is also important to state that we are a welcoming school division for all children and we will follow the law as it pertains to access to records and child contact by outside agencies including law enforcement.  We have met with our local police and social services to coordinate messaging and response. 

I recognize that educational leaders work and live in different socio-cultural-political environments.  Each leader has to make a personal judgment on what they believe is in the best interest of their children.  I am fortunate to be in a community that appreciates the diversity and the mayor and I put a video together emphasizing our rich tradition of acceptance in Harrisonburg.   I also know and have received criticism by a few but my focus has to be our students and doing what I believe is in their best interest.  The school board and community at large have been very supportive.

Who are some of the staff in your district having an important impact on this issue?

Honestly, everyone. Harrisonburg is a very diverse and small community and this makes it more personal, I believe.

Do you have any guidance for increasing the knowledge base of staff throughout the district regarding issues or concerns of immigrant and refugee students?

In particular, we’ve heard from educators who would like to know what steps they can take to ensure that front office staff are up-to-date about relevant policies. This has been an ongoing effort of ours and we continue to make sure all 8 of our schools are aware of our efforts. I meet periodically with our principals on this issue and others to coordinate our efforts.  It is expected that they are keeping their staff informed.

Do you have any guidance for fostering dialogue between staff who many have differing viewpoints?

It is important that we respect the different viewpoints of others and not silence those opinions if channeled correctly. However, our school division has clear set of core beliefs that need to be adhered to. Most importantly our staff must show unwavering respect and acceptance of all children regardless if they are an immigrant or not.

What steps can an individual teacher take to clarify his/her understanding of the policy in the district regarding efforts on behalf of immigrant students and families?

We are hearing from teachers who really want to be helpful but are nervous to do so in the absence of clear guidance.

What kinds of partnerships can schools create or strengthen to support their immigrant families at this point in time?

It's critical to work with houses of worship, civic groups and non-profits that have a similar mission.  I think you should be transparent, and as superintendent I am comfortable taking a leadership role on this matter.

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