English-Language Learners

State Officials Share Advice on Supporting New Immigrant Students

By Ileana Najarro — November 30, 2023 5 min read
Students Anthony Gonzalez, middle, and Kritza Ardon Blanco, right, listen to teacher Kristine Jones, left, in the library at Valencia Newcomer School on Oct. 17, 2019, in Phoenix. Children from around the world are learning the English skills and American classroom customs they need to succeed at so-called newcomer schools. Valencia Newcomer School in Phoenix is among a handful of such public schools in the United States dedicated exclusively to helping some of the thousands of children who arrive in the country annually.
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Enrolling students new to the United States brings many variables schools and districts need to sort out, including potential language barriers and limited transcript documents. While many districts have developed their own rules for ensuring newcomer students are enrolled and placed correctly, especially in secondary grades, experts say that state guidance helps ensure districts are equitably supporting these students.

Yet, researchers at the progressive think tank Next100 found in an October report that less than half of state education agencies are requiring or recommending reviews of newcomers’ past schooling experiences and even fewer are offering guidance for enrollment.

States that researchers pointed to as examples of offering effective guidelines include Mississippi, Indiana, Washington state, Pennsylvania, Colorado, and Oklahoma.

Officials in two of these states, Colorado and Mississippi, offered advice to others on how they developed resources for their districts and why such an investment matters.

Listen to your districts

The Colorado education department oversees 179 school districts that range from very rural with less than 1,000 students to larger districts with 35,000. Some of these districts have had years of experience working with newcomer students. Others are only now enrolling refugees from war-torn countries.

To ensure that state guidance on enrolling and supporting newcomers would help all these districts with varied needs, state officials had to first get input from educators directly, said Morgan Cox, the director of the culturally and linguistically diverse education office in the state agency.

The goal is to align state guidance with what districts need, she added. To achieve that, state officials must be transparent about what they are trying to do, allow districts to partner and provide feedback, and share their own guidance documents.

“It’s a real collaborative process that really brings in the experience of not only the students, but also districts that are serving those students, and teachers educating the students, and the family liaisons that are working directly with those families,” Cox said.

In Mississippi, the impetus for writing a state-level document on how to support students with limited or inconsistent/interrupted formal education came from schools asking several questions related to these students, said Sandra Elliott, the English-learner intervention-support specialist within the Mississippi education department’s elementary education and reading office.

Colorado districts are now asking more questions about students with limited or inconsistent/interrupted formal education in their home countries. It’s why state officials are working on a new chapter in their multilingual-learner guidebook for next year. It will include advice from higher education partners’ research on how to support newcomer students in secondary grades academically and how to offer mental health and behavioral support as well, Cox said.

As migration patterns shift within Colorado, officials including Joanna Bruno, the executive director of teaching and learning at the state education department, want to ensure that all districts are ready for newcomers.

“We certainly want to make sure that just because you don’t have any [newcomers] right now, doesn’t mean you’ll never have any,” Bruno said. “So it’s good to have awareness across the state with regards to not only new newcomers but serving multilingual learners in general.”

Address multiple what ifs

Colorado officials found that state guidance works best when it addresses a variety of scenarios schools may encounter when enrolling newcomer students.

For instance, sometimes students may not have a birth certificate on hand, and unaccompanied minors may not recall their birth date. Schools can work with refugee-resettlement offices to fill in the blanks.

“We have done a ton of work on really talking through a lot of those examples and what to do during those instances,” Cox said. “So really talking to students, talking to families, finding out all the information that we can so that students are placed appropriately, age-wise, and academically, and that they receive the best language-development services, if they do qualify for those, that are at grade level with appropriate scaffolds and supports access to grade-level content.”

Make sure guidance is useful to all educators

For years, experts in working with English-learners have called for better collaboration and co-teaching between general education teachers and English-learner teachers.

It’s why Mississippi state officials made sure that their resources were written in a way that’s useful to administrators and teachers alike, Elliott said. Specifically, they intended resources for general education teachers with limited training on how to support their English-learner students and newcomer students in particular.

"[Newcomers are] a group of students who we really need to take the extra time to make sure that we’re doing more to provide support that might be outside of the box of what we normally would do for other English-learner students,” Elliott said.

“As far as advice to other states, I would say, look to your community, look to your educators. They are an invaluable resource to really build upon what you’re doing at the department level to really make it very usable for the districts,” she added.

With a broad audience in mind, Elliott also spoke of the need to use asset-based language in any state-level resources. In other words, to describe students and their abilities in net-positive ways rather than focusing on limitations.

“We certainly don’t want to perpetuate any misconceptions that others in the community may have about students who have interrupted formal schooling. Because we do know our students very well, we know that they are doing incredible work, they know so much about the world, and while they may not know English, they do have incredible linguistic skills,” Elliott said.

Look to other states for advice

For state agencies looking to draft their own guidance related to newcomers, Elliott said there’s no need to start from scratch.

Districts within a state may already have developed guidance that works for others and simply needs to be elevated to the state level.

But also, officials can look at other state education agencies to see what’s been done that can be applicable to their given state. Mississippi officials, for instance, relied on guidance from Rhode Island and New York in developing theirs, Elliott said.

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