It’s Time We Live Up to Our Promise to Newcomer Students – Next100
Commentary   Education + Early Years

It’s Time We Live Up to Our Promise to Newcomer Students

Immigrant and refugee newcomers have the right to an education, but our schools are failing to provide adequate supports for them to realize that right. It’s time to implement policies at the federal level to make resources available for all schools that serve newcomers, and hold schools accountable for doing so effectively.

During my first year of teaching in Miami, more than a dozen of my students had only been in this country for a few days when they were ushered into my classroom. When each student arrived, the registrar would bring them up the two winding flights of stairs to my poster-filled classroom and ask me to wait with them while the registration officer completed each student’s enrollment paperwork. As one of just a few Spanish-speaking staff in the building, I was often called on to bridge language and cultural gaps between the school and newly arrived families: calling parents for teacher conferences, providing school-wide updates, and raising academic or behavioral concerns on families’ behalf with the school administration.

I remember one student who joined me while I graded homework assignments during my planning period. She told me about her family before I walked her to her next class. Later, the registrar asked me to call her parents to request her school records from her home country because the front office didn’t have a Spanish speaker. The family didn’t have the records. So, the school placed her in courses typical of other ninth graders, as well as English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL), and wished her luck.

In addition to the challenges she faced in core subjects with teachers who were not trained to differentiate instruction for multilingual students, the counselors tasked with providing emotional support were also not trained to aid newly arrived adolescent children in their social, cultural, and academic transition. Further, the school’s attendance policies did not provide any leniency for her absences due to attending immigration proceedings with her parents, so she was penalized.

As a former English learner (EL) and member of a mixed-status family, I know too well that schools have failed to support immigrant students for generations. In my school, a handful of teachers, including myself, committed to being counselors, registrars, and messengers for a number of newly arrived students as best we could. But even when we asked for guidance from school and district leaders, no one was able to provide it. When we looked for resources, they were hard to find.

Even when we asked for guidance from school and district leaders, no one was able to provide it. When we looked for resources, they were hard to find.

This is not a unique situation. Each year, thousands of newcomer students in classrooms across the country are left to navigate their academic coursework and new social settings on their own. The impact of this neglect has become more evident in recent years. In 2018, the median state-level high school graduation rate for ELs was 68.4 percent (with rates as low as 31 and 47 percent in New York and Arizona, respectively—both states with significant immigrant populations). During the pandemic—which has exacerbated pre-existing inequities, particularly for students who were historically underserved—ELs and immigrant students suffered absenteeism at a significantly higher rate than other students. These data demonstrate that the issues my students faced in Miami are not just school or regional issues—this is systemic, and it is more relevant with recent trends of new arrivals.

According to a 2021 RAND report, an estimated 321,000 youth from the Northern Triangle and Mexico enrolled in K–12 schools between 2017 and March 2020. That number of students is nearly the size of the enrollment of Chicago Public Schools, the third-largest school district in the country. Each new refugee crisis also brings a new set of students: as of December 2021, nearly 25,000 Afghan evacuees age 18 and under still remain on military installations around the country; and U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas stated in September 2021 that more than 12,000 Haitian migrants were given clearance to enter the country under asylum. All of these families will soon move into communities across the country, and their children will enroll in their local schools. By and large, district schools are not ready to support them.

In my teaching as well as in my personal life, I have seen and experienced the consequences of structural inequities for immigrant students, and joined Next100 in order to tackle the issues in a systemic way, with and for the students and communities impacted—like my own. There are many local examples of individual people, schools, and districts taking thoughtful steps to properly support their newcomer students, but without change in both federal and state policy, the examples they provide will be lessons we could have learned, but wasted instead.

Actualizing the Right to an Education

The intensity and polarization of recent political conversations about migrants and refugees can obscure the fact that when it comes to newcomer students, educational equity is far from new. In fact, federal law has provided newcomer students with a right to education for decades now. In 1982, the Supreme Court, in Plyler v. Doe, affirmed the constitutional right of a free education for all youth regardless of citizenship status, paving the way for undocumented students and new arrivals to attend K–12 schools and seek a path toward academic and economic success in the United States.

However, despite the legal precedence that ensures the right to education of undocumented immigrant children, there remain a number of barriers to realizing that right for many students. Prohibitive enrollment practices in some districts have made it difficult for newly arrived children to enroll in schools if they don’t provide the proper documents for proof of residency. Many immigrant and refugee children have gaps in their education, making accurate course enrollment difficult, especially if the child arrives without academic records from their country of origin. Others may come in with pertinent social-emotional needs due to traumatic experiences or increased family responsibilities in a new country. Some arrive unaccompanied, placed with a distant family member or a sponsor whom they do not know, and have to navigate a new country and a new home life. Further, many school leaders fail to recognize the countless unique strengths newly arrived children and families offer to the school community, often making them feel unwelcome and unimportant. Each of these factors contributes to significant enrollment and attendance barriers for immigrant students that impede access to school and undermine their federal right to an education.

The federal government has offered at least some support, having issued guidance for newcomer enrollment practices and toolkits filled with resources for educators working with these students. However, there remains a gap in explicit funding earmarked to implement more robust programs and supports for these newcomers, in particular beyond Title III, the primary determinant in how EL funding is allocated, and which is itself inadequate to meet the needs of ELs. There is also no meaningful, systemic regulatory mechanism for holding schools and districts accountable for serving newcomers well, in part because there isn’t a formal way of defining and tracking newcomers across districts and states. In short, schools are left on their own to meet these needs.

There are of course exceptions to this. Some districts and educators have risen to the challenge and managed to create effective newcomer programs on their own, such as Denver South High School in Denver, Colorado, and Oakland International School in Oakland, California. These examples are just two among a number of programs in which students are lucky to enroll. But access to robust programs is often limited to specific cities and regions where there is already a significant immigrant population and other accessible resources, or families find out about them by chance.

The federal government recognizes the right of immigrant children to a free education regardless of citizenship status, but without instituting policies that help state and local education agencies support newcomers and provide the appropriate funds to do so effectively, states and localities are left to fill the gap in their own ways… if at all.

Immigrant students deserve more than a chance at an equitable education. The federal government recognizes the right of immigrant children to a free education regardless of citizenship status, but without instituting policies that help state and local education agencies support newcomers and provide the appropriate funds to do so effectively, states and localities are left to fill the gap in their own ways… if at all. As newly arrived children continue to enroll in our schools across the nation, it is our duty to ensure their access to a quality educational experience is met in every classroom where immigrant children learn.

The Road Ahead: Recommendations and a Vision

One innovative school or committed teacher within a school can make a real difference, but ultimately, they can’t address the systemic inequities immigrant students face across the country. The federal government must enact policies that expand access to the academic, social, and emotional supports immigrant newcomers need to thrive in school.

One way to do this is to make a greater amount of dedicated funding readily accessible to local educational agencies (LEAs)1 that serve immigrant newcomer students. Schools need explicit newcomer funding to be able to hire staff and invest in training and resources to meet the varying needs of students when they arise; a new or expanded federal funding mechanism is needed to be able to meet these needs for schools.

Secondly, the federal government and state educational agencies (SEAs)2 should ensure all LEAs are aware of and have access to guidance and existing frameworks for serving newcomer immigrant students, including best practices for culturally relevant social–emotional health support and strategies for communication and family engagement that meet the needs of multilingual immigrant communities. As mentioned, there are places where effective strategies are having an impact on newcomer student outcomes and growth, but there is no formal mechanism to make those practices widespread and easily accessible to all education leaders. SEAs should publish general best practices on their websites, and liaisons should be designated in each LEA to disseminate information to schools and coordinate professional development to implement these practices effectively.

Finally, accountability for students who are historically underserved is extremely challenging without uniform definitions of those groups. Over the years, advocates have encouraged the federal government to explicitly define groups of ELs, such as long-term English learners (LTELs), students with limited or interrupted formal education (SLIFE), and newly arrived or newcomer students. Setting those common naming practices as standards at the federal level would allow SEAs and LEAs to further disaggregate and track outcome data and target supports to meet specific student needs, even as they move districts both within and across state borders. However, without formal guidance, SEAs, LEAs, and schools are left to decide whether or not to identify and track these students in a systematic way, and many choose not to do so. The federal government should create common definitions for LTELs, SLIFE, and newcomers in order to allow SEAs and LEAs to more adequately and meaningfully address the academic and social-emotional needs of all immigrant children.

With the increased focus on educational equity, culturally responsive–sustaining education (CR–SE), and what that looks like for multiple groups of marginalized students—a long-neglected and critical conversation—there is a prime opportunity to integrate the need for systemic supports targeting immigrant students and multilingual learners. And given that 2021 has had the largest number of immigrants presenting at the U.S. Southern border in over two decades, and the country’s new arrivals have dispersed far beyond just the southern border states over the last two decades, it is time that we ensure that these systems of support for immigrant newcomers are formalized and available in schools everywhere—from Hawaii to Maine—so that children have a chance to demonstrate their intellectual and academic potential and thrive wherever their families settle in the United States.

  1. Formally defined in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), LEAs are public administrative agencies within a state legally authorized for the administrative direction of public elementary and secondary schools in a city, county, school district, or other political subdivision. A school’s LEA is typically a county or city school district.
  2. The SEA for a given elementary or secondary school is the state agency primarily responsible for supervision of that school. It is typically the state’s department of education.

About the Author

Alejandra Vázquez Baur Education + Early Years

Alejandra is an educational equity and immigration justice advocate. At Next100, Alejandra’s work focuses on expanding systemic academic, social, and emotional supports for K–12 immigrant students and multilingual learners, drawing on her teaching experience in Miami–Dade County Public Schools. Alejandra is a proud product of Mexican immigrants, and previously worked at various education and immigration non-profit organizations in New York City.

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