English Learners

How Schools Should Support Newcomers to the U.S.: A Case Study

By Ileana Najarro — November 29, 2023 5 min read
English Language Learning Program coordinator Dina Saunders, collects worksheets while helping in Katie Pringnitz's 6th grade Language Arts classroom on Aug. 24, 2016 at Mount Pleasant Middle School in Mount Pleasant, Iowa. The Mount Pleasant school district has Spanish, Vietnamese, Lao, Chinese, English and Indigenous languages from Central America and Vietnam speaking students.
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In the last 15 years, the number of students enrolling in high schools in Massachusetts who have lived in the United States for less than a year, and are not proficient in English, has nearly tripled.

These new students have lower average levels of English-language proficiency than newcomers in years past, according to a new report from the Annenberg Institute at Brown University. They also face a new policy landscape in the state including higher standards for graduation and a mix of English-learner programming used across districts.

It is a state-level scenario that experts say can be found across the country as migration patterns continue to shift while the quality of English-learner support varies across states.

In fact, when a high number of unaccompanied minors entered the country from Central America a decade ago, several teachers nationwide spoke of how unprepared they felt to support the various needs these students had, said Julie Sugarman, a senior policy analyst for pre-K-12 education at the Migration Policy Institute, a think tank.

“They were more likely to be students with limited or interrupted formal education, they were older, they had more trauma in their home country or in that trip coming over. There were family reunification issues, so some of those contextual issues, it was really sort of a different population,” Sugarman said.

The new research from the Annenberg Institute offers a case study of how one state, Massachusetts, has fared in addressing the needs of a unique English-learner population and what lessons other states can learn.

Addressing a shifting landscape

The new report came out of a research practice partnership between the team at Brown University and Massachusetts’s state education agency, said lead author Ann Mantil, a senior research associate at the Annenberg Institute.

One factor behind the research was the implications of a state policy requiring high school students to pass all three of the state’s high school standardized tests in order to receive a diploma, Mantil said.

The policy was updated for the graduating class of 2026 by increasing the minimum score required to earn a high school diploma. About 45 percent of newcomers failed to get the scores needed to graduate in 2022. About 72 percent would have failed under the new higher threshold, had it been in effect, the report found.

“These students are arriving in high school, not proficient in English, and with a relatively short amount of time to meet the local graduation requirements in their districts, [and] also pass these three [standardized] tests,” Mantil said.

Another policy change impacting newcomers in the state came in 2017 when legislation allowed districts to choose teaching models other than sheltered English immersion. Sheltered English immersion meant English learners were taught grade level content strictly in English. A 2002 ballot initiative effectively curtailed bilingual education in the state for years, Mantil said.

Despite that flexibility, Mantil said that most newcomers in Massachusetts are still in SEI classrooms.

“It’s important both for districts and for state leaders to look at the research around language acquisition, and determine whether more needs to be done to build out additional program offerings that support newcomers more effectively,” Mantil said.

While most of the growing newcomer population in the state is concentrated at 14 high schools in 10 urban districts, the number of districts serving at least five newcomers in 2022 grew to 95 from 59 in 2008.

It’s a demographic shift playing out across the country as well.

While there aren’t updated numbers from federal agencies of how many people are entering the country today and where they are going, Sugarman said there has been a new phenomenon of cases where conservative politicians have bused large groups to cities such as Chicago, New York, and the District of Columbia. That’s often happened with little notice for local schools to prepare.

(According to the American Community Survey, approximately 47 percent of 44.4 million immigrants age 5 and older in the country in 2018 were limited English proficient (LEP), as reported in the U.S. Department of Education’s office of English language acquisition’s newcomer toolkit.)

“I think some of the bigger cities have been overwhelmed, not because they don’t know what to do, but just overwhelmed by large numbers all at once. And feeling a lot of pressure to not let anybody slip through the cracks,” Sugarman said.

But districts that only served a handful of newcomers per year now say they’re also getting a larger number, she added.

Solutions that could help newcomers

Mantil and her team concluded that some strategies for supporting newcomer students in Massachusetts can also be applied in other states.

First, there’s the need for more English-learner teachers and more access to research-based strategies in teaching newcomers for general education teachers, Mantil said, such as coteaching and collaboration.

Mantil’s team also found a need for more flexible programming. District administrators interviewed for the report said that many teenage newcomers had work obligations outside of school and were coping with trauma from their home countries or during their journey to the United States.

That means districts and schools have to come up with schedules that can accommodate work obligations and offer programs that address social-emotional needs.

A better alignment between K-12 schools and adult education programs would also be helpful for older newcomers, Sugarman said, such as allowing for more streamlined credit transfers and informing students of these options.

Sugarman also noted that the U.S. Department of Education’s office of English language acquisition has several resources for states and districts to learn how to support newcomers, even though most EL advocates say federal funding to pay for top quality teachers and program models falls below need.

“I think that the Department of Education is really doing what they can in terms of making sure that the programs that they have are really high quality, but I know that people are also really frustrated that the federal government isn’t taking more of a responsibility for the cost of serving these students,” she said.

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