A working paper from researchers at Northwestern University and the American Institutes for Research found no evidence that refugee students have a negative effect on the behavior or academic achievement of their schoolmates.
David Figlio, the incoming dean of the School of Education and Social Policy at Northwestern, and Umut Ozek, a senior researcher at AIR, examined what happened in 100 Florida schools following the Haitian earthquake of 2010.
The natural disaster brought an estimated 4,000 refugee students to four south Florida school districts —Broward, Miami-Dade, Orange, and Palm Beach. The researchers investigated the effects of Haitian refugees on a variety of incumbent students, including non-refugee Haitian immigrants, U.S.-born students of Haitian ancestry, other non-Haitian immigrants, and U.S.-born students who aren’t immigrants.
Examining three years of post-earthquake data—spring 2010, when refugees were still entering the schools and in the 2010-11 and 2011-12 academic years, after the wave of refugee arrivals ended—the team found no changes in test scores or disciplinary problems, and no evidence that the arrival of refugee students led incumbent families to depart schools in large numbers.
The research could be of interest to educators welcoming new immigrant students, many of whom may be English-language learners, to their schools. Education Week has written about the surge of unaccompanied minors that arrived in U.S. schools during the 2014-15 and 2015-16 school years.
With that said, Figlio and Ozek do note there are several factors that could limit the application of their findings to other schools and regions. They note that Florida has an established, sizable Haitian immigration population with schools that may already have support systems—Haitian Creole-speaking staff among them—in place to help recent refugees from the island nation.
In many districts, educators often struggle to find staff who speak the same languages as incoming refugee students and can serve as interpreters and translators to help families understand their rights and responsibilities.
In part because of concerns that refugee and immigrant students will negatively affect the education of their peers, a number of districts have enacted policies that deny these students equal access to classes and schools. A 2016 investigation by the Associated Press found that immigrant children living in the United States as unaccompanied minors have been blocked or discouraged from registering for school in at least 35 districts in 14 states.
In response to these findings and others, civil rights groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union and Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, have filed lawsuits in places such as Pennsylvania, New Mexico, and California on behalf of the students and their families.
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A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.