Equity & Diversity

Study: Dearth of Programs For Older Immigrant Students

By Mary Ann Zehr — January 24, 2001 5 min read

Programs designed especially for students who know little or no English are concentrated at the elementary level, even though secondary schools enroll a greater proportion of such students, according to a study released this month by a Washington-based research organization.

For More Information

The report “Overlooked and Underserved: Immigrant Children in U.S. Secondary Schools,” Jan. 11, 2001, is available from the Urban Institute. "(Requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.)

The study, “Overlooked and Underserved: Immigrant Students in U.S. Secondary Schools,” found that in 1995, the most recent year for which data were available, 5.7 percent of students in grades 6-12 were foreign-born, while only 3.5 percent of students in grades K-5 met that profile.

But it revealed that 76 percent of limited-English-proficient students in grades K-5 received special services to learn English, while only 42 percent of students in grades 6-8 and 48 percent in grades 9-12 received such instruction.

“Immigrant students don’t arrive conveniently in pre-K,” said Michael Fix, a co-author of the study and the director of immigration studies at the Urban Institute, which conducted the research. “They’re distributed across the grades. The schools haven’t been structured over time to handle this new population.”

The study focused on two subgroups of immigrant students that it contends are especially overlooked: youths who move to this country in grades 6-12 and who don’t know English, or how to read and write in their native languages; and youths who have learned to function socially in an English-speaking environment but keep the LEP label for years because they can’t read or write well in English.

In its definition of “immigrant” students, the study includes children born in the United States who have at least one foreign-born parent.

The proportion of foreign-born students in secondary schools grew faster than that of such students in elementary schools in the 1980s and 1990s, the report says. In addition, secondary schools have a higher percentage of students who have immigrated within the past five years.

‘Mismatched’ Programs

Yet, said Mr. Fix, “there is a mismatch between this great distribution of children and the spending on language acquisition that takes place.”

Representatives of the nation’s two largest public school systems—New York City and Los Angeles Unified—said the study’s findings were on the mark and agreed with its conclusion that secondary schools need to do a better job teaching LEP students.

“We have better-prepared staff at the elementary level than we do at the secondary level,” said Rita P. Caldera, the director of language- acquisition programs for the Los Angeles district, which has 723,000 students. “The organization of schools at the secondary level is not conducive to developing language development as needed for these students.”

She noted that 40,000 of the district’s 310,000 LEP students have completed special programs to learn English and are now enrolled only in mainstream classes. But those students have retained the LEP label, she said, because of weak literacy skills.

Ms. Caldera said the district plans to launch a program this spring that could help those students improve their English by taking classes outside the regular school day. The district also plans a push to provide more professional development for teachers—starting with teachers who work full time with LEP students, then training mainstream teachers to provide better instruction to such students who end up in their classes.

The study’s findings “totally correspond with the study of our students here,” added Irving S. Hamer, a member of the New York City board of education and the chairman of a board subcommittee on bilingual education.

In the 1.1 million-student New York school system, a mere 15 percent of students who arrive in the 9th grade and enroll in special programs to learn English ever leave those programs, a 2000 study by the subcommittee found. (“N.Y.C. Study Adds Fuel To Bilingual Ed. Debate,” Sept. 13, 2000.)

Mr. Hamer estimated that about 15,000 of the city’s 160,000 LEP students have entered the system at the secondary level and are candidates for dropping out of school because the quality of their education doesn’t prepare them to meet the state’s graduation requirements in a reasonable amount of time.

“These children are a very big challenge,” he said. “The New York City system doesn’t have a specific program focused on these children. I may guess that most school systems don’t have a program that focuses on these students.”

Nevertheless, immigrant children make up a rising share of K-12 students nationally, the report points out, drawing upon U.S. Census Bureau data. The proportion of U.S. schoolchildren who immigrated themselves or have at least one parent who immigrated rose from 6 percent to 19 percent from 1970 to 1997.

The study notes that throughout the generations, most members of immigrant families who settle in the United States do learn English. While 39.5 percent of first-generation immigrant children have limited proficiency in English, only 0.5 percent of third-generation students—the grandchildren of immigrants—are considered LEP.

Room for Improvement

The report makes a number of recommendations on how schools can do a better job in making sure first- and second-generation immigrant students learn English and meet academic standards.

Among them: training more teachers of mainstream classes on strategies for teaching LEP students, restructuring secondary schools to have longer blocks of time to learn than the traditional 50-minute period, and better inclusion of LEP students in systems of academic standards and accountability.

Carola Suarez-Orozco, a co-director of the Harvard Immigration Project and a senior research associate at Harvard University, argues that the study’s recommendations on teacher professional development and school reorganization would be good for all students, not just immigrants.

But the study’s authors didn’t focus enough on the fact that some immigrant students are doing very well, she said, adding that her research shows that immigrant students arrive in U.S. schools with tremendous energy and optimism about education.

“There are these energies we could harness as a society, but we’re not,” she said. “Kids come in with energy and quickly lose hope.”

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A version of this article appeared in the January 24, 2001 edition of Education Week as Study: Dearth of Programs For Older Immigrant Students

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