Equity & Diversity

Making Immigrant Students and English-Learners Feel Welcome in School

By Madeline Will — October 01, 2014 2 min read
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By guest blogger Madeline Will


High school can be hard enough for teenagers—but for immigrant youth who face a host of additional challenges, school can be a lonely place.

That’s why it’s so important for schools to be welcoming to all students, particularly immigrants and English-language learners, experts said at an event here on Tuesday. The event, at the School Without Walls, a small public magnet high school in the District of Columbia, was held by the Center for Applied Linguistics and Welcoming America. It featured a panel discussion of experts in education and immigration advocacy about how to build school communities that are open and inclusive.

I Learn America” was also screened—a short documentary film that follows five immigrant teenagers at the International High School at Lafayette in New York City as they navigate both traditional struggles of high school (like prom and homework) and the challenges that come with adjusting to a new culture, learning English, and in some cases, adapting to a family they haven’t seen in years.

“These stories are in every classroom in America,” said Jean-Michel Dissard, one of the film’s directors.

But sometimes in school, “there’s no time for students who just arrived to share what they feel,” he said.

Public schools have often struggled to create environments in which immigrant students feel comfortable and can thrive academically. But it’s an increasingly important issue that demands educators’ attention as English-language learners—many of whom are U.S. born, but are the children of at least one immigrant parent—continue to be the fastest growing segment in K-12 public schools. And educators in many communities are also grappling with how best to serve newcomer immigrant youth from Central America, many of whom have arrived in the United States over the last 18 months without adult family members or guardians.

Students are most successful when they feel welcomed and part of the school community, said David Lubell, founder and executive director of Welcoming America, a national organization that strives to build more inclusive communities for immigrants.

“There is a welcoming imperative, and nowhere does that imperative exist more than in schools,” Lubell said.

Jennifer Pearsall, the executive director of ELL services for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district in North Carolina, said during the panel discussion that last year, staff members shadowed ELL students across the district for a day to gain insight on the quality of instruction they received, their levels of engagement, and what their conversations and oral interaction were like with peers, as well as with their teachers.

She said the experience was eye-opening—overall, the students were well-behaved but not engaged. They weren’t interacting with peers, for the most part, and were not telling their stories. Many spoke less than for less than 10 minutes a day.

She said the district has since incorporated this knowledge into professional development for teachers.

Panelists also discussed other aspects of a welcoming school community, like teachers who are nurturing and educators who promote college access. Offering counseling services and flexibility for students with special circumstances, such as having to work in order to help support their families, are also necessary components of an inclusive school community.

Educators: How do you make sure classrooms are welcoming for immigrants and ELLs? Share your goals and challenges in the comment section below.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.