Equity & Diversity

Study Shares Newcomer Schools’ Best Practices

By Lesli A. Maxwell — January 17, 2012 5 min read
Students watch an educator pour water as part of an experiment on erosion at the Columbus Global Academy in Columbus, Ohio. The academy enrolls about 460 students in grades 6-12, all of whom are recent arrivals to the United States.
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When adolescent immigrants enroll in American public schools, time is not on their side.

Within as few as four years, they must learn English, master academic content, and adapt to American culture. Some, lacking formal schooling, may not be literate in their native languages.

But a small number of programs around the United States offer promising practices for teaching such students for other school districts to emulate, according to a new national research study from the Center for Applied Linguistics.

Practical guidance on working with this vulnerable group is crucial: “Newcomer” students make up one slice of the nation’s more than 5.3 million English-language learners, the fastest-growing population of students in public schools. Increasingly, these newcomers are moving to communities where educators have little or no experience working with students having such academic and social needs.

Financed by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the new report by the Washington-based research center draws on survey data collected over three years from 63 newcomer programs at middle and high schools across the nation. Researchers Deborah J. Short and Beverly A. Boyson also have compiled a searchable database of those programs. (Carnegie also helps support coverage of district and high school reform in Education Week.)

For their analysis, the researchers delved into the attributes that successful secondary newcomer programs share as they help adolescent students overcome multiple learning challenges in a short amount of time. Beyond offering instruction in beginning English, many newcomer programs teach core academic courses and provide social services to help newcomers and their families adjust to living in the United States.

“The key is for educators to know exactly who their students are and to design a program that meets their needs,” said Ms. Short, a senior research associate. “You have to start with the basics for many of these students. And it’s clear that you can benefit these students even if you are only able to do a little bit to support them.”

Impact of NCLB

Special programs serving recently arrived immigrant teenagers who are English-learners began appearing in school districts during the 1970s. Most enroll students for a limited period—one or two years—before the students transfer to a regular language-support program such as English as a second language or bilingual education. In 2000, the Center for Applied Linguistics collected data from 115 newcomer centers around the country.

But several programs closed down in the years after the federal No Child Left Behind Act became law in 2002 because of accountability pressures, Ms. Short said.

Maryan Abdullahi, 17, works on her chemistry homework at the Global Academy. Ms. Abdullahi, a junior, was born in a refugee camp for Somalis in Kenya.

“The whole-school programs would never reach proficiency under NCLB,” Ms. Short said. “So they closed or called themselves something else.”

More recently, budget cuts and the recession—which has slowed immigration—have hit newcomer programs. One of the nation’s oldest centers, Newcomers High School in San Francisco, shut down in 2010 after 30 years of operation.

One school that has persevered is the Columbus Global Academy in Columbus, Ohio, according to the report.

The school’s 460 students in grades 6-12 come from all over the world. Roughly half are refugees from Somalia, Iraq, Burma, or Nepal, said Principal Kimberly A. Normand in an interview. The students receive a comprehensive academic curriculum for middle and high school students, a feature common among the successful programs.

“The programs that work best for students are those that are focused not just on teaching English, but on the content areas as well,” Ms. Short said.

For most of its 15 years, students at the Global Academy would stay a year or two before transferring to an ESL program elsewhere in Columbus, but last year, the school began issuing diplomas to graduates. Having the option to stay until graduation is especially beneficial to newcomers who arrive in 10th grade or later, Ms. Normand said.

“That gives them the chance to develop relationships with teachers who will be with them until they graduate,” she said.

Students get most of their instruction in English, but every classroom has a bilingual assistant who can speak with them in their native language. The bilingual staff also act as liaisons to families, Ms. Normand said.

“All of our teachers, even the gym teachers, have to have certification to work with second-language students,” said Brenda Custudio, the school’s assistant principal.

Careful selection of staff members is a hallmark of most of the successful newcomer programs, Ms. Short said. Besides handpicking staff, she added, effective programs “do very targeted professional development to focus on adolescents who are learning to read.”

The best programs offer extended learning time after school, on weekends, and during the summer, the report says. And many provide targeted learning supports for students. At the Global Academy, for example, retired teachers work with students in “reading clinics” three times a week. Offering counseling, mental health, and other connections to social services is also key, according to the report.

Shifting Locations

Ms. Short and Ms. Boyson collected data on 63 newcomer programs around the United States in 2010, updating a survey from a decade ago when more than three-quarters of them were in urban areas. The most recent data show that while programs might be shrinking in number, they are also shifting location due to changing immigration patterns.

Of the programs in the current survey, 52 percent are in urban areas, while 33 percent are in suburbs and 14 percent in rural areas. Some are in unlikely places, such as Jackson Hole, Wyo., an upscale ski resort town in the Rocky Mountains, and in West Fargo, N.D.

That such programs have opened in communities that have not traditionally been gateways for immigrant families underscores the need to train more educators on how to provide services for teenage immigrant students, said Andrés Henríquez, a program officer for literacy and standards at Carnegie.

“What’s particularly critical is that these nontraditional areas develop a capacity to work with these students,” Mr. Henríquez said. “We wanted to figure out what elements are in these newcomer programs that make them successful, so that knowledge can be shared.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 18, 2012 edition of Education Week as Study Shares Secrets of Successful ‘Newcomer’ Schools

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