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What to Do About Older Immigrant Students?

By Mary Ann Zehr — March 22, 2010 2 min read
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While in many states, schools can technically permit students to attend high school until they are 21, I find it the exception rather than the rule that school districts welcome older youths in their regular high schools. More often, it seems, they encourage them to enroll in adult education classes if the students haven’t earned a high school diploma by age 18. This issue comes up with immigrant students who arrive in U.S. high schools in their teens without any high school credits.

An opinion published in The Washington Post this weekend touched on the issue. Patrick Welsh, an English teacher at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Va., noted that his high school likely would fare better in the accountability system of the No Child Left Behind Act if it didn’t enroll immigrants who arrived in the United States at age 18 or older. Here’s an excerpt from his commentary:

And we are outraged that the school system enrolls newly arrived 18- to 20-year-old immigrants in the general student population, where they aren’t in programs tailored to their particular needs. Had we done as Arlington and Fairfax counties [in Virginia] do and offered them enrollment in an adult education program, their Standards of Learning scores would not have counted, and it’s very unlikely that T.C. would have gotten the “persistently low achieving” label. We would also be serving those students better.

How to address the needs of older immigrant students is also an issue in El Cajon, Calif., which I recently visited to write about Iraqi refugees being resettled there. Some Iraqi parents said that the community doesn’t have a good solution for meeting the needs of refugees who are 18 or 19 and have gaps in their education. El Cajon Valley High School administrators tell them to enroll in adult school, but Iraqi parents say adult classes, which are full of middle-aged adults, aren’t a good fit for them. Even if a refugee hasn’t yet turned 18, the high school will enroll him or her only on a case-by-case basis. The parents wish the school district provided a special class or school for the young adults.

Readers, please share with us the policies of your schools and the educational institutions in your community concerning older immigrant or refugee students. Do you let English-language learners stick around in a regular high school until they are 21 to finish a high school diploma? Does your community have a special school for older youths, and if so, is it effective?

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