Sept. 18, 2023
As of last week, 46.7 million public school students were back in the classroom. Among returning K–12 students were immigrant children who are starting school in the U.S. for the first time. Many terms are used to describe these students– newcomers, recently arrived English learners, immigrant children and youth, or recently arrived immigrant English learners– to name a few. While not all states and school districts are experiencing the same level of recently arrived immigrant students–20,000 in New York City and 1,200 in Chicago, and 50 just outside of Boston– all localities and schools have the same legal obligations to these students.
The protections, processes and services offered to immigrant and English learner students are enshrined in various federal laws. First, the seminal Lau vs. Nichols case of 1974 prohibits public schools from discriminating based on race, color, or national origin and enshrines that ELs must be provided with the necessary services to “fully participate” in their education, regardless of language barriers. Furthermore, through Plyler v. Doe in 1982, the Supreme Court held that federal law ensures that all students are provided with equal access to public education regardless of immigration status—schools and districts are precluded from asking about a student’s immigration status upon enrollment. And the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA)– the most recent reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA)– implemented various accountability measures for English learners (ELs). Among these new measures was the requirement that states adopt standardized, statewide entrance and exit procedures for ELs. And states must ensure that new students are assessed within 30 days of school enrollment to determine if they should be classified as ELs and thus eligible for language development services.
In 2015, the U.S. Department of Education and Department of Justice issued guidance to state education agencies about what it means to provide ELs with meaningful access to education. According to this guidance this includes providing them with language assistance programs that are educationally sound, as well as ensuring they can access all curricular and extracurricular activities, including the core curriculum, graduation requirements, specialized and advanced courses, and programs, sports, and clubs. Despite these legal requirements, as of September 6, 2023 there were 99 pending cases under investigation by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights across 34 states for violations against English learners on the basis of race and/or national origin. Given the unprecedented number of recent arrivals in some schools, this issue may be exacerbated if school districts are ill-equipped or not familiar with enrolling and providing services for these new arrivals.
Fortunately, there are federally mandated systems in place to protect K–12 students from immigrant backgrounds, both U.S.- and foreign-born. Within these systems, here are some actionable things schools and districts can do to ensure recent arrivals are well cared for in their new school communities.
1. Ensure student-level data is being collected upon enrollment.
In the media, these students have been broadly referred to as “migrants,” and while that is a protected class of students, they represent a small subset of recently arrived immigrant students. Schools often serve as recent arrivals’ first point of contact in their new communities, and making generalizations about recent arrivals does a disservice to the heterogeneity of experiences and backgrounds represented among these students.
Recent arrivals are not just migrants, they can also be refugees, asylum seekers, unaccompanied minors released to a parent/guardian, or otherwise be an immigrant without an official status. Schools and districts should collect as much student-level data as possible to help them provide holistic services to the student and their parents/guardians. Information on recent arrivals’ home language, socioeconomic status, housing status/circumstances, disability status, educational history, and migration journey may provide meaningful context to schools as they help students integrate into the U.S. education system.
2. Maximize existing English learner identification and screening procedures, and expand them when necessary.
Many recent arrivals will qualify as ELs students, though this should not be assumed. Each state is required to have identification and screening procedures to identify English learners built into the enrollment process. Typically this process involves the parent/guardian filling out a home language survey, and if a language other than English is identified on the survey, that student will be screened using the state’s chosen language proficiency tool to identify the student’s baseline English proficiency. Each state has its own threshold for “English proficiency” and if a student scores below that threshold, they will be identified as an EL and start receiving language support services.
Critically important for recent arrivals is determining whether they may have experienced limited or interrupted formal education either in their country of origin or en-route to the U.S. Consider a 16-year-old recent arrival from Haiti referenced in recent coverage of this issue in Massachusetts who had missed seven months of school en-route to the U.S. This student is set to start the 11th grade and is fluent in English, however, if their new school does not have appropriate screening procedures to identify whether they have experienced interruptions to their education, then the student’s needs tied to the interruptions may go unaddressed.
Unfortunately, there is no uniform definition for students with limited or interrupted formal education (SLIFE), and schools and districts are not required to identify whether recent arrivals fall into this category. That being said, 23 states have adopted their own working definition for SLIFE. Among these is Oregon who not only has a working definition but also began collecting data on SLIFE in 2015. Thanks to this data, they are able to see that this subpopulation of students has increased every year, as well as which grades they are enrolled in and where they live.
Absent a universal requirement to identify and screen for SLIFE, adoption of identification and screening tools has been limited. Though screeing tools are available, like the Abee screener that Inlier Learning* has been developing, no state is known to be fully implementing universal identification and screening procedures for these students. Nevertheless, the current shift in new arrivals signals the growing need for districts and states to adopt universal SLIFE screening and assessment tools.
3. Tap into cross-sectional programs that provide funding and support for recent arrivals’ intersectional needs.
Accurate data collection on the front end can also help schools and districts make the case for increased funding and resources both in the near-term and in the future. States can increase Title III funding for immigrant children and youth if and when a district experiences a significant increase in immigrant youth enrollment. Although this system has its shortcomings due to rigid criteria that must be met, the unprecedented increase in recent arrivals may compel states to provide much needed funding relief regardless. In the short-term, increased funding can help schools and districts pay for additional teachers, social workers, interpreters, translation tools and services, home-school liaisons, and screening tools for newcomers.
Student-level data on recent arrival demographics can also ensure that students with intersecting needs can draw funding from other sources. For example, students with disabilities can receive support through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA); unaccompanied children who are released to live with a sponsor may be eligible on a case-by-case basis under The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act; and recent arrivals attending Title I schools should be counted under Title I, Part A of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), which provides funds for children who attend high-poverty schools. Additionally, refugee students may benefit from the Refugee School Impact program administered by the Department of Health and Human Services which provides grants to state and state-alternative programs to support school districts impacted by school-aged refugees and Office of Refugee Resettlement-eligible populations.
And lastly in the long-term, better disaggregation of recently arrived immigrant students and English learners can be used to compel federal and state officials to account for students’ intersecting needs in annual funding formulas, something that is currently lacking.
It is important to remember that new arrivals will not always be “new” and how schools and districts approach them from the beginning can determine whether these students will persist and succeed in school. The U.S. Department of Education recently updated their Newcomer Toolkit which provides educators with professional learning activities and progress observation tools that can be used to track these students’ progress. It is imperative that educators collect as much information as possible to help them determine the most appropriate instructional approach for the recently arrived students in their respective school buildings. Through thoughtful implementation of data collection systems and consistent professional development for all teachers, hopefully schools and districts will be better prepared the next time global migration patterns bring newcomers to their doors.
*Disclosure: the author is on the advisory board for Inlier Learning.