Home » Volume II, Issue 1 / Fall 2013 » The Challenge of Graduating On Time for Newcomer Immigrant Youth in New York City High Schools

The Challenge of Graduating On Time for Newcomer Immigrant Youth in New York City High Schools

Joanna Yip
Graduate Center, The City University of New York

Executive Summary

Recent accountability systems in educational policy and more stringent high school graduation requirements in New York State have added new obstacles for newcomer immigrant youth to graduate from high school on time. The cumulative effects of growing up without quality formal education in low-income countries of origin, combined with the failure of secondary schools to address their academic needs, negatively impact their academic trajectories. This policy brief discusses the reasons why expectations to meet high school graduation requirements remain elusive, how accountability policies exacerbate the educational challenges that immigrant adolescents face, what schools are currently doing to serve these students, and offers recommendations for comprehensive policies to support the high school graduation of immigrant youth in a student-centered and sustainable fashion. This brief demonstrates that the mandate to accelerate newcomers toward high school graduation results in an educational collision that can be avoided by comprehensive student-centered policy changes.

Statement of the Problem: Newcomer Immigrant Youth and High School Graduation

The current and future flows of immigrants to the United States has created a challenge for educational institutions to serve an increasingly pluralistic population with a diversity of educational experiences. A growing population of foreign-born teenagers is especially vulnerable among school-age immigrants (Holdaway & Alba, 2009). Newcomer immigrant youth1 arrive in the U.S. during a critical period of adolescent development, their first introduction to formal schooling in this country beginning in middle or high school. The proximity of their arrival to high school completion means that their educational readiness and the linguistic, academic, and developmental needs of immigrant adolescents set them apart from their younger immigrant siblings, or from American-born children of immigrants (Suárez-Orozco et al., 2008; Suárez-Orozco et al., 2010; Advocates for Children, 2010; Short and Boyson, 2012). Only educated in the U.S. for a brief period, they are expected to master the entire high school curriculum in a new language, reach a sufficient level of college readiness, and achieve the same performance outcomes as their native-born counterparts (Suárez-Orazco et al., 2008).

For some immigrant adolescents, the progression toward high school graduation is primarily a transition from using their home language to learning in English, an already difficult challenge. Yet, for a majority of immigrant adolescents, their past educational backgrounds have not prepared them for studies in core content areas at the secondary level, and they are often ill-prepared for schooling in an advanced education system (Suárez-Orozco, Suárez-Orozco, & Todorova, 2008; Mace-Matluck, 1998; Short & Boyson, 2012). Some have significant gaps in their formal education and many have limited literacy in their home language (Advocates for Children, 2010; DeCapua et al., 2007; Short & Boyson, 2012).

For newcomer immigrant youth, high school graduation remains elusive in ways that differ from the experiences of their younger immigrant siblings, or their American-born counterparts. They often arrive in high school below grade level, resulting in low levels of literacy when they learn English. Short and Boyson provide a vivid description of this perfect storm of challenges:

Not only do these newcomers have to master complex course content, usually with incomplete background knowledge and little understanding of fewer years to master the English language […] time is critical. In addition, the secondary level newcomers are enrolling at an age beyond which literacy instruction is usually provided to students and most teachers are not prepared to teach initial components of literacy, like phonics and fluency […] Thus, these newcomers are performing double the work of native English speakers in the country’s middle and high schools, and often without the benefit of academic literacy and grade-level schooling in their first language to draw from. (2012)

Furthermore, immigrant adolescents are contending with the socio-emotional transition to a new culture, school community, and neighborhood (Suárez-Orozco et al., 2010). Many are adjusting to reunification with parents they have not seen for years and are dealing with a host of psychological barriers to learning (Suárez-Orozco, Todorova, & Louie, 2001; Suárez-Orozco et al., 2011).

Challenged by the task of integrating newcomer immigrant youth, schools are compelled to speedily catch students up from their childhoods of poor quality education, often a consequence of poverty in the countries of origin (Suárez-Orazco et al., 2008). Yet, this challenge is made greater by educational policies at the federal, state, and local levels which hold immigrant adolescents to the same academic standards as native-English speaking students without adequate instructional support to prepare for these academic benchmarks (Menken, 2008; Suárez-Orozco, Suárez-Orozco, & Todorova, 2008; Advocates for Children, 2010; Garcia & Kleifgen, 2010). Newcomers are expected to graduate high school within four years of enrollment, or by the time they age out at 21 years of age, regardless of their English proficiency, how long they have lived in the U.S., their prior levels of formal education in their countries of origin, or the adjustments they need to make to a new language and country (Short & Boyson, 2012). Schools and teachers must be extraordinary in their pedagogy and practice to comply with accountability policies that evaluate and penalize them for poor educational outcomes (Bartlett & Garcia, 2011; Jaffe-Walter & Lee, 2011; Garcia & Kleifgen, 2008). In many schools, newcomers struggle to graduate on time and are likely to require extensive post-secondary remediation if they pursue higher education. Some immigrant youth, understanding the steep climb toward educational attainment, forego formal education altogether after their arrival on American shores and directly enter the ethnic enclave economy (Holdaway & Alba, 2009; Martinez, 2009; Fry, 2005).

This policy brief discusses why high school graduation requirements remain difficult to meet, how accountability policies exacerbate the educational challenges that immigrant adolescents face, the impact of current educational policies, and it offers comprehensive and student-centered recommendations for how to support this particularly vulnerable population. This brief examines specifically the data and experiences of newcomer immigrant youth in New York City public high schools. In this context, newcomers are typically designated English language learners (ELL) for their limited English proficiency, and some are designated Students with Interrupted Formal Education (SIFE) because of their limited formal schooling.

The Academic Performance of Newcomer Immigrant Youth in New York City’s High Schools

While English language learners are not proxies for immigrant students, the data on the educational outcomes of newcomer immigrant youth in New York City is found by looking at the performance of ELLs. The New York City Department of Education’s demographic analysis of the entire ELL population across K-12 grades highlights the challenge of educating this subgroup of students. ELLs make up 14.4% of the overall student population. 63.1% of all ELLs are recently arrived foreign-born students while 69.2% of ELLs receive free lunch compared with the 55.6% citywide average, an indication of the levels of poverty present in this demographic in comparison to non-ELL students (NYCDOE, 2009; NYCDOE, 2013).

While much research literature examines ELLs as a group, this brief emphasizes the importance of disaggregating the analysis by age-identity and isolating the experience of newcomer immigrant youth for examination. The overall number of ELLs in elementary school is large, but decreases steadily as students learn English (NYCDOE, 2013). At the secondary school level, however, ELLs are much more likely to be foreign-born. High schools educate 28.7% of all ELLs in the city and contain the largest group of foreign-born ELLs (NYCDOE, 2013). 74.2% of high school ELLs are foreign-born (compared with 29.6% of students in elementary school), and the number of newcomers among them has increased by 2.4% since 2010 (NYCDOE, 2009; NYCDOE, 2013). These data show the differential situations of ELLs at different age groups.

Of these newcomers in high school, 9.8% of the total ELL population is SIFE and they are disproportionately twice as likely to be enrolled in high schools than in primary school (NYCDOE, 2013). High schools also disproportionately educate the majority of long-term ELLs, students who have not reached a proficient level of English even after receiving the average number of years of bilingual and ESL services. In fact, from 5th grade onward, the number of ELLs who are SIFE, long-term ELLs, or have disabilities outnumbers the number of general ELLs, showing the significant challenge of serving such a population of students at the secondary level (NYCDOE, 2009; NYCDOE, 2013). The large percentage of such students with specialized learning challenges negatively skew the overall ELL performance data at the high school level. This low educational attainment among ELLs is a result of below-grade level literacy and numeracy skills and educational inconsistency, as students move between the U.S. and their native countries or between school districts in the U.S. (NYCDOE, 2009; NYCDOE, 2013). Hence, a majority of newcomers in high school require specialized instructional strategies and institutional interventions to prepare them for high school graduation (NYCDOE, 2009).

New York City has purportedly made improvements in serving newcomer immigrant youth. The percentage of ELL dropouts decreased from 29.3% in 2007 to 21.7% in 2008 while the city’s overall dropout rate in 2008 was 13.5% (NYCDOE, 2009). The four-year graduation rate for ELLs rose 10.7 percentage points between 2007 and 2008 (NYCDOE, 2009). While more ELLs are graduating high school, ELLs still stand about 19 points behind the overall graduation rate in NYC (NYCDOE, 2009). In 2007, ELLs had lower four-year graduation rates (30.8%) and experienced more dropouts (28.9%) than non-ELLs (63.5%) and former ELLs (70.9%) (NYCDOE, 2009). While testing requirements for a high school diploma have increased, the impact of these exams on overall dropout and graduate rates for ELLs remains unclear (NYCDOE, 2009). A closer examination may reveal a decline in graduation rates as academic gatekeepers become more stringent, and the slight gains that have been made are not sustained: Regents scores and graduation rates remained flat when examined across the period from 2003 to 2007 (NYCDOE, 2009).

Time and prolonged opportunities to learn are crucial components to supporting the achievement of this subgroup. Meaningful engagement in academic work for an additional one to three years after the foundational four years of high school can significantly improve graduation rates (NYCDOE, 2009; Fine, 2005). ELLs remain enrolled in high school at a high rate after four years, an indication of their motivation to learn English and succeed academically (NYCDOE, 2009; Fine, 2005). This is also evidence that newcomers need more than four years to “meet increasingly stricter graduation requirements” (NYCDOE, 2009). As well, former ELLs, students who were once identified as ELLs but test out of ELL status by demonstrating advanced English proficiency, outperformed even non-ELL students on standardized tests at multiple grade levels. Former ELLs have higher graduation rates, lower dropout rates than even English proficient students who were never classified as ELLs (NYCDOE, 2009). This fact suggests that prolonged time to learn matters. Former ELLs typically spend more years in the U.S., started schooling in the U.S. at a younger age, and have acquired both the language and the content knowledge needed to succeed on standardized exams.

Yet, extant research has revealed a pattern of decline in educational performance for newcomer immigrant youth, a pattern that is more severe for some immigrant groups than others, based on socio-economic status and country of origin (Suárez-Orozco et al., 2008; Suárez-Orozco et al., 2009; Suárez-Orozco et al., 2010; Hirschman, 2001). While many newcomer adolescents put in double the work and effort, they paradoxically experience a pattern of decline in academic achievement based on GPA and test score data within a few years of coming to the U.S. This downward trajectory is precipitous and dramatic as the academic load in secondary schools becomes more demanding, the linguistic and content knowledge required of them grows increasingly out of reach, and students receive fewer instructional interventions to support their learning (Suárez-Orozco et al., 2009). SIFE students are even more vulnerable: their dropout rate is as high as 70% and this population makes up 38% of all foreign-born school dropouts (Fry, 2005). While educational policies attempt to accelerate these students toward graduation in four years, they ironically experience an accelerated decline as the learning curve to master increasingly rigorous coursework steepens.

Factors that Impact the Educational Achievement of Newcomer Immigrant Youth

In order to appreciate the challenges that come in the way of high school graduation for newcomers, one must examine the complex web of inter-related factors and processes that impact the possibility of their educational success. These factors include family structure, socio-economic status, parental levels of human capital, number of years in the U.S., English proficiency, and school conditions in the context of reception (Suárez-Orazco et al., 2008). Socio-economic status has significant relevance to the academic preparedness of immigrant adolescents to perform in educational contexts and varying levels of class advantages play a role in the divergent educational outcomes of different immigrant groups (Rumbaut & Portes, 2001). Access to consistent and quality educational opportunities in their home countries may result in higher academic achievement. Yet, for many immigrant students from low-income economies such as Yemen, Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Bangladesh (all primary sending countries of newcomer youth in New York City), their educational deficits are the result of a lack of learning opportunities in countries of origin. The following section outlines key factors impacting the educational achievement of immigrant youth.

a. English language development

For newcomer immigrant youth, the critical period in a young person’s language development is disrupted by immigration. Their linguistic repertoire in their home language is, at that point, in an inchoate phase, still developing complex linguistic structures. Yet, it is at this very important development juncture that they are uprooted to a different country. Due to the mostly subtractive schooling practices in U.S. schools, teen immigrants are rarely given the opportunity to continue language development in their home language (Valenzuela, 1999; Bartlett & Garcia, 2011). Educational policies demand, instead, that they divert all their energies to quickly learn English (Garcia & Kleifgen, 2010; Menken, 2010).

Yet, language development in new languages is heavily influenced by fluency in a person’s first language (Cummins, 1979; Garcia & Kleifgen, 2010; Monroy, Ochoa & Cadiero-Kaplan, 2004; Menken & Kleyn, 2010). Teenage migrants need to have developed fluency in their native language well enough in order to meaningfully transfer their heritage language practices to learning a new language (Cummins, 1981a; Bartlett & Garcia, 2011; Monroy, Ochoa & Cadiero-Kaplan, 2004; Menken & Kleyn, 2010). Moreover, developing proficiency in formal registers of English and complex language embedded in the secondary curriculum takes longer than developing basic conversational skills needed for everyday life. Given that one of the most important determinants of academic success and high school completion is English proficiency, the ability for immigrant adolescents to accelerate their language acquisition so that they can graduate on time is of utmost importance (Suárez-Orazco et al., 2008; Cummins, 1981b). Yet, this demand for acceleration is incongruous with the natural development of language acquisition (Bartlett & Garcia, 2011).

In addition to basic communication skills, students must also develop complex literacy practices in both their home language and in English in order to succeed in academic contexts. Yet, some students do not develop high levels of literacy in their native language because of poor schooling in their home countries (Short, 2007; Cummins, 1981b). Immigrant youth have had little exposure to or practice in making sense of complex texts using formal language embedded in sophisticated content knowledge. Even long-term ELLs who have been studying in the U.S. for a long time have difficulty with complex linguistic forms and formal registers used in academic texts (Menken & Kleyn, 2010). For some SIFE, their primary language is oral so they have few literacy skills to transfer to learning a new language (Short, 2007). Given this profile of many immigrant adolescents, the effort required of secondary schools to prepare students for complex college-level literacy is extraordinary. The mandate to accelerate their climb up this steep learning curve within four years is unreasonable, especially if schools must do so without adequate resources or comprehensive interventions.

b. Academic and cognitive development

Because of poor quality primary education or disrupted educational experiences, immigrant adolescents never developed requisite content knowledge in a variety of subjects to master a rigorous high school curriculum (Mace-Matluck, 1998). Children from rural areas, or from developing countries that lack a strong education system, struggle when they enter an education system whose curriculum prepares students to work in a post-industrial, service and knowledge-based economy in the U.S. Students may have developed the knowledge to farm and shepherd yaks in Tibet, but lack the literacy skills to maneuver the ways of formal schooling. In some countries, the political systems might be so unstable that access to schooling may have been irregular or sporadic, leaving gaping holes in their academic repertoires (NYCDOE, 2009; Short & Boyson, 2012). For refugees, their schooling may have been so minimal or inconsistent that it would appear as if they had not gone to school at all.

Nevertheless, when teen immigrants enter the U.S. education system in mid-adolescence, they are taught a sequential and recursive K-12 curriculum, which assumes that students have been consistently learning in English in U.S. schools their entire childhoods. They also begin their education in the U.S. as the curriculum places increasing academic literacy and content-knowledge demands on students. Hence, even while they are still emergent readers and writers, immigrant adolescents are asked to produce complex tasks that require advanced literacy that they never developed prior to immigrating (Short, 2007; Short & Boyson, 2012). These students lacked formal instruction to develop cognitive capabilities they would later need when engaging in secondary level content. While their peers have had years to process the content cognitively, basic concepts that educators take for granted that secondary students know may be lost on these students and may even not exist in their prior knowledge. It is no surprise, then, that in only four years, the students are unable to grasp the academic and linguistic knowledge they need to pass state-mandated standardized exams, and it is unrealistic to expect that they would without corresponding levels of support.

c. Social-emotional development

Furthermore, adolescence is a highly adaptive period of growth and transition, with socio-emotional challenges and changes in social interactions, exacerbated by physical and neural growth. What is already a difficult period of development becomes exponentially more challenging because of linguistic and academic barriers, the need to recreate a sense of belonging in a new world, and the challenge of managing a bicultural identity (Suárez-Orozco et al., 2011). Traumatizing experiences of migration, crossing borders, and contact with human smugglers, disrupt this critical period of development, with significant ramifications that can have lasting effects (Suárez-Orozco et al., 2011). Furthermore, the educational experiences of teen migrants in U.S. secondary schools are characterized by extreme frustration, leading to higher dropout rates (Short, 2007). The social stigma attached to catching up on basic skills while learning alongside their native-born peers in secondary classrooms creates both an academic and psychological obstacle to learning (Suárez-Orozco et al., 2011). For these students, high school is a zone of severe frustration. It is likely that thousands of immigrant youth arrive in the U.S. and forego formal education altogether as a result, choosing instead to enter the labor force because educational opportunities to help them catch up are not available.

d. Instructional Challenges

The complex academic and linguistic needs of newcomers require highly individualized and customized instruction. For low performing students, ideal learning conditions include small group or one-to-one instruction and a significant investment of resources for even the smallest gains to be realized. They may attend school regularly and complete assignments, but still continue to lag behind their peers significantly. Because few schools provide adequate resources or appropriate instructional interventions customized for them, they struggle to meet a four-year graduation timeline. Even teachers who are trained bilingual or ESL teachers have little experience with instructional modifications for SIFE students, or may lack an understanding of what their needs are. SIFE students require age-appropriate curriculum instruction that is adapted to their academic and literacy level. Yet, teachers find it challenging to differentiate instruction for the students while keeping the momentum of an already packed and rushed curriculum for other high school students. Teachers also struggle to locate materials that are appropriate or created with this population in mind.

The Impact of Current Educational Policies on the Education of Newcomer Immigrant Youth

In an effort to raise the academic achievement of ELLs, New York City’s Children First reforms placed a spotlight on improving the educational experiences for immigrant students across grade levels. The New York City Department of Education acknowledged the complexity involved in supporting newcomers: “[high school ELLs are] transnational students who move between the U.S. and their native home; students with inconsistent schooling who move among bilingual, ESL, and in some instances, general education programs; and transitioning students who simply need more time to gain English proficiency and content area knowledge” (NYCDOE, 2009). In addition, the school district recognizes that interruptions in schooling and poor learning experiences are common among immigrant youth, and that SIFE and long-term ELLs need “specialized supports to build competencies in English and/or native language literacy, and content areas where subject matter was missed” (NYCDOE, 2009).

Yet, at the same time, the district’s policies to raise achievement focused increasingly on high-stakes assessments, college and career readiness standards, and accountability policies that have created a high school experience fraught with anxiety for newcomers. The broad recognition of the challenges that ELLs face has not translated into policies that accurately assess students, or fairly hold schools accountable for serving unique subgroups of students such as SIFE, high school ELLs, and long term ELLs. In New York City, the academic performance of newcomers is measured against the same standards, using the same tests and metrics as those utilized for the general population.

Stricter Gatekeepers & Graduation Requirements

Since 2003, high school graduation requirements in New York State have become more stringent in an effort to close the skills gap that exists between high school graduates and entering college students, a gap which is especially wide for newcomers. Regardless of when they started learning English, newcomer immigrant students must pass five rigorous Regents exams in core content areas in order to graduate. The cut-off scores for passing the exams were raised to 65 points (up from 55). As well, educators have expressed concerns that changes in conversion tables used to calculate scores for standardized tests have made it more difficult for students to pass (Anand, 2013). The validity of these standardized exams to assess the learning of students who are learning English is questioned widely (Menken, 2008; Garcia et al., 2008; Garcia & Kleifgen, 2010). Yet, these gatekeepers heavily dictate the educational experiences of newcomer immigrant students and create barriers to high school graduation that neither improves their mastery of content knowledge nor prepares them for post-secondary education or careers.

College & Career Readiness Standards

In addition to high-stakes assessments, the Common Core Learning Standards, designed to educate a college and career ready population, have raised standards for the education of newcomer ELLs. Schools serving immigrant youth have to realign their curriculum and instruction to this rigorous set of benchmarks, highlighting how much catching up newcomers have to do. The design of the Common Core largely left the needs of immigrants by the wayside since the standards assume that ELLs would be held to the same standards as their native-born peers. The standards also assume that students have had consistent access to a recursive primary school curriculum beginning in kindergarten and that English was the only medium of instruction to engage these students with this curriculum. Thus, the standards are an odd fit for many newcomers who are still learning English and whose primary education experiences were inadequate.

Accountability Metrics

As a result of federal and state-imposed accountability targets under No Child Left Behind, schools nation-wide were asked to show annual yearly progress for ELLs in mastering English and in academic performance in content areas. The translation of these federal mandates at the local level resulted in an accountability system in New York City in which schools are measured using school report cards. These accountability mechanisms base the progress of newcomers on standardized test scores, how many years it takes them to graduate from high school, how many students are accepted into college, and how many need remediation in college, with little regard for the challenges they face. Most recently, the evaluation of teachers is heavily bases the measures of student learning on the Regents exams and/or Common Core aligned performance-based assessments, all assessments that newcomer immigrant youth struggle with.

A Pedagogy of Acceleration and Educational Collision

The emphasis on accountability and standards is intended to improve the quality of education for historically underperforming subgroups of students, a necessary component of school reform. What is less clear is whether current policies have significantly improved learning conditions for immigrant youth or led to significant changes in academic outcomes. Furthermore, the accountability metrics for schools and educators who do the complex work of teaching this vulnerable population are neither fair nor reasonable. Absent significant investment of resources, instructional supports, and comprehensive programs, accountability policies alone create contradictory consequences.

The existing educational policies are characterized by a pedagogy of acceleration, a set of suffocating ideologies and mandates that demand teen immigrants accelerate their learning and development. This harsh evaluation system creates unintended consequences as schools increasingly focus on teaching to standardized tests, rush through curriculum, and engage in instructional malpractice as they race to meet a set of absurd institutional demands. This pedagogy of acceleration results in high-stress secondary school experiences for students and instructional distractions away from sound teaching and learning. Signaling the possibility for disaster, and creating the conditions for educational collision, this pedagogy of acceleration denotes a misalignment between the educational policies of accountability and the vast educational and developmental needs of immigrant adolescents. The students’ academic performance often declines when they cannot accelerate quickly enough to meet the requirements of the accountability system (Suárez-Orazco et. al, 2008; Suárez-Orozco, Rhodes, & Milburn, 2009; Advocates for Children, 2010).

Without consideration of the disadvantages they bring with them from their home countries, or of the time and resources required to make academic success possible, this pedagogy of acceleration insists that immigrant students and their schools put in double the work to meet increasing academic expectations (Short, 2007). In a supposed equitable system of meritocracy, the efforts of immigrants are ironically not rewarded, and the success of those students who do manage to graduate on time is typically masked by the significantly lower test scores of SIFE and long-term ELL students in their cohorts (NYCDOE, 2009). These policies send the message that immigrants are outsiders and must prove their belonging, their “deservedness” and worthiness of full membership in American society through academic achievement (Newton, 2005; Koelsch, 2009; Garcia & Kleifgen, 2010). As such, educational policies constitute as institutional barriers that maintain the marginalization of immigrant students into the U.S. society and economy.

Supportive Policy Directions to Address the Educational Needs of Newcomer Immigrant Youth

Though the standards for academic achievement are challenging to attain, a pedagogy of acceleration may lead to promising outcomes if and when instructional and comprehensive policies are put in place to provide the support that immigrant adolescents require to make educational success possible. In addition to accountability mandates and stricter graduation requirements, New York City implemented supportive instructional reforms to improve the graduation rates of ELLs across the city under the 2003 Children First reforms. Unlike accountability policies, instructional policies are intended to “build the capacity of all educators to deliver coherent programs and high-quality instruction” that fosters language development and places a singular focus on literacy development (NYCDOE, 2009). The following instructional priorities can conversely have a positive effect on academic outcomes because they target the specific learning needs of newcomers:

  • Effective ways of identifying students with inconsistent schooling;
  • Understanding the academic and literacy competencies of SIFE and long‐term ELLs;
  • Identifying and studying the level of accelerated learning that academic interventions produce;
  • Building a strong native language arts development continuum so that ELLs can enter at any level, from pre‐literacy to Advanced Placement;
  • Identifying native language resources to fill subject matter and conceptual learning gaps;
  • Providing all secondary teachers of ELLs with academic language and literacy professional development; and
  • Enriching secondary educators’ repertoire of skills and strategies to effectively accelerate the achievement of diverse ELL subgroups. (NYCDOE, 2009)

These curricular and instructional reforms are noteworthy and continuation of these supportive policies will hopefully yield positive academic outcomes for this particular group of struggling students.

As well, between 2011 and 2012, an unprecedented 50 new bilingual programs were opened, with an additional 65 schools planning to open bilingual programs as of 2013 (NYCDOE, 2013). Approximately 76% of ELLs are contained in English as a Second Language programs, so the proliferation of bilingual programs, as well as high schools that serve over-aged ELLs, is a welcome move in the right direction. The city has devoted resources to designing secondary school programs that serve newcomers and doubled the number of high schools exclusively serving this population. The Office of ELLs provided over $3 million in grants since 2004 and professional development for schools that have a proven track record of strategically serving SIFE students (NYCDOE, 2013).

Yet, educating immigrant students often requires supplemental time, specialized resources and programs, and extraordinary levels of funding to support such reforms. Unfortunately, the commitment to fund and invest in these opportunities has not been proportional to the actual need. In the aftermath of the 2008 economic recession, Short and Boyson noticed a sharp decline in the number of programs that specifically served SIFE and newcomer adolescents across the country (2012). Some states with fiscal shortfalls had to limit the time available for these students to be enrolled in support programs (Short & Boyson, 2012).

Recommendations for Comprehensive Policy Solutions

While instructional reforms and accountability policies play a role in raising the academic achievement of newcomer youth, they are insufficient. Given their complex needs, school districts tasked to educate newcomers must consider a comprehensive policy approach with student-centered policies that align and coordinate various organizational structures and systems that operate across the school district, address out-of-school obstacles that impact achievement, and reinvent school design. The following comprehensive proposals are based on the unwavering idea that policy solutions must meet students where they are when they arrive and seek to provide immigrant students with not only a high school diploma but also a sound education that nurtures well-being and furthers individual interests, passions, and ambitions. Furthermore, the site of reform is not situated in standardized tests or in the classroom or teacher alone (though they have potential impact on classroom practice). Rather, these reforms coordinate multiple levels of the school district and involve multiple stakeholders in an effort to meaningfully accelerate the progress toward graduation.

  1. The High School Application Process and Enrollment – When newcomers immigrate to the U.S., they rely on members of their family or neighborhood to refer them to a public school, with little knowledge of their educational options. If they arrive in the middle of the school year, they enroll as “over-the-counter” students who usually select a school based on seat availability and geography, rather than by linguistic and academic needs (Arvidsson, 2013). As a result, they are often placed in schools that do not have appropriate resources, trained teachers, or language programs. They are also disproportionately enrolled in low-performing schools (Arvidsson, 2013).
    Newcomers who arrive in middle school must negotiate the notoriously unwieldy high school application process. Low-income families are severely disadvantaged in this process because they do not have the social or cultural capital that enables them to understand how the process works, or access to relevant information about appropriate high schools for their children (Perez, 2011). In an era of unprecedented school choice, immigrant families are disproportionately deprived of information and fair systems in a sophisticated educational marketplace (Perez, 2011). Immigrant families require information about high school selection; information about various bilingual, transitional, and newcomer programs for ELLs presented in multiple languages; as well as school personnel to explain the process to immigrant parents.
    The school district must remove this institutional barrier by providing better access to enrollment information and carefully consider how high school application and enrollment decisions impact the educational trajectories of newcomers. Strategic articulation and placement in high school admissions to appropriately match newcomers with effective programs designed to serve their needs is imperative. Without careful placement and enrollment, this imbalanced enrollment of ELLs in low-performing schools warehouses immigrants in poor performing programs, as well as unfairly places the burden of educating a challenging population on under-resourced and already struggling schools.
  2. Autonomy for Effective Newcomer programs– In 2005, the Graduate Center of the City University of New York studied the graduation, dropout, and discharge outcomes of three high schools of the Internationals Network for Public Schools, a network dedicated to serving newcomer immigrant youth exclusively. Hailed as “a powerful model for educational possibility,” the schools provide a broad range of supports, implementing and developing best practices for ELL education in New York City (Fine, 2005). Despite the odds that adolescent ELLs face, the four-year graduation rate of the international schools was 63.4 %, better than the city’s overall rate of 51.9% at the time (Fine, 2005). The five to seven-year graduation rates were even more impressive, reaching a rate of close to 90%, and the dropout rates were also extremely low in comparison to the city’s overall rate for ELLs (Fine, 2005). Such programs serving newcomers with a track record for success should be given autonomy to utilize their own best practices in serving this unique population of students.
    A large part of what made the international high schools successful was curricular and instructional autonomy to use performance-based assessments, a project-based and experiential curriculum, and a particular model of pedagogy and school design (Fine, 2005; Jaffe-Walte & Lee, 2011). Exempt from all but the ELA Regents exams, the original international schools are a part of the New York Performance Standards Consortium, resulting in significantly better outcomes because they utilize performance-based assessments that more validly and reliably measure the learning of ELLs. This exemption protects newcomer programs from the negative impact of high-stakes testing and allows these newcomer programs to maintain fidelity to culturally responsive and effective pedagogy. The school design and core pedagogical principles2 that guide the internationals model result not only in high school graduation but college readiness as well (Jaffe-Walte & Lee, 2011). In order for the international schools to continue reproducing their strong performance, their practices and pedagogical models should be preserved and improved upon. Their autonomy in philosophy, pedagogy, and school design, including relief from standardized exams, should be maintained and expanded to other effective newcomer programs.
  3. Fair Accountability and Assessment – Federal, state, and local mandates need to reflect a reasonable time frame for graduation, and accountability systems need to be fair. Newcomers should be allowed six years to graduate from high school before schools are penalized. Schools should be recognized for students that successfully meet regular requirements, and credit for helping newcomers beat the odds (Fine, 2005). Schools that serve large numbers of newcomers should be compared to other like schools in their peer group on school report cards so that they are not measured against schools with majority English-dominant students. Report cards should measure the growth of these students in English and in content areas rather than on how far away they remain from expected standards. These schools should be measured on student outcomes on performance-based assessments, which are more valid and reliable assessments of student mastery of content and growth in language development. Where standardized test scores are used, they should be used in conjunction with anecdotal data and with the academic and linguistic baseline of newcomers in mind.
  4. Holistic Intervention Programs for Newcomer Immigrant Youth – Newcomers face a host of unique socio-emotional struggles, such as reuniting with parents, moving to a new country, learning a new language, meeting new step-siblings born in the United States, taking on adult responsibilities to support their family, and balancing work and school. Such at-risk immigrant youth need a network of safety nets and culturally responsive programs to maintain their engagement in school. These support systems help students develop resilience and stamina, especially in the face of high-stakes exams, to progress towards graduation, and create a place of belonging in a xenophobic world that perpetually reminds them of their outsider status. These intervention programs include:
    1. Culturally responsive mentoring programs that provide student with a knowledgeable and committed role model to support their academic progress.
    2. Ethnic and cultural student associations that develop their social roots in their immigrant communities and provide support from co-ethnic peers and community members.
    3. Expanded guidance and social work services—Immigrant youth require a network of trained counselors who understand their cultures, languages, and their challenges as immigrants. Schools need to increase the availability of social workers and guidance counselors, whose caseloads in high-needs schools are disproportionately high, even as the need is also disproportionately great. Bilingual guidance counselors that speak low-incidence languages, in particular, are lacking. The school district needs a pipeline or recruitment program to invest in this human capital. Counselors can provide individual and group counseling around issues that are unique to this population, such as the psychological impact of undocumented status, or frustrations with learning English.
    4. Strong community-building structures—One of the hallmarks of international schools that serve newcomers is their strong advisory programs, which foster friendship and healthy cohesion among students in the school environment. Community building structures create a safe space for immigrant youth to work out their fears and anxieties in a culturally responsive context. e.     Strengthening parent engagement with community organizations so that the school is a site of support for immigrant families (e.g. programs that provide legal services, readily available translation services, adult education, ESL classes, or job placement for parents).
    5. Recreational afterschool programs—In a high-stakes testing environment, many immigrant youth find few outlets to release stress and anxiety. As they put in double the work to graduate, they often lack access to pleasure and fun to help them cope with their challenges.
    6. Partnerships with youth development organizations that involve students in community service opportunities, or community organizing activities that engage youth in the political process, especially around comprehensive immigration reform. A real commitment needs to be invested to create these programs or to develop strategic partnerships with organizations that can provide a broader range of support programs beyond what the school can provide on its own.
  5. School Design & Scheduling – Strategic academic programs that provide the kind of instruction that newcomers require may involve reinventing school design or re-engineering schedules and programs with the needs of newcomers in mind. The academic programs offered to newcomers should provide early intervention, a range of educational experiences, and emphasize academic rigor.
    Early Intervention – Many schools hold a “wait and see” approach, waiting for students to acquire basic conversational skills in English, before they expect students to perform in content classes. The inverse also occurs, when students take language courses with little exposure to rigorous content. Intensive early intervention newcomer programs that focus on language development with content integration, and which frequently monitor the progress of students in their first year of learning English, can provide students with a strong foundation as they progress in the upper grades, and accelerate their readiness for increasingly rigorous academic work. Class sizes in these programs should be small in order for early intervention to be effective.
    Strategic Academic Programs – Newcomers need academic programs that are strategically designed to target their developmental needs as they move from ninth to twelfth grade. Their coursework should parallel their changing academic and language development as they move into the upper grades. In addition to early intervention programs, their academic programs can include:

    1. Literacy and numeracy classes based on their development in English and Math that do not replace, but supplement core content classes;
    2. Eleventh grade intervention program that includes tutoring and small group instruction, focusing on the particular challenges of that academic year (e.g. SAT prep, essay writing, Regents test prep, and portfolio development); and
    3. Twelfth grade intervention program with a focus on meeting graduation requirements and preparing for post-secondary options (e.g., college essay writing and writing research papers).
    4. When these interventions are built into their regular academic programs, they are more likely to receive the customized instruction they need to excel academically.


  6. Varied and Rigorous Educational Experiences – Immigrant youth also need varied and rigorous educational experiences that expand their exposure to a variety of content areas. Assuming these learning opportunities provide language support, varied coursework builds background knowledge and cultural capital, amplifies language development, and prepares students for post-secondary options. A broad selection of rigorous theme-based electives can be offered in academic content areas, and also in less traditional areas such as social media, design, robotics, culinary arts, or social entrepreneurship. Hands-on and experiential enrichment programs like technology courses, performing and studio art courses, or internship and/or vocational programs provide students with alternative learning opportunities that prepare them for post-secondary options. Newcomers should also have access to college prep courses in their schools or in college readiness programs at local universities like College Now, for those want to transition to college-level work. Native language courses should be offered to continue developing their heritage language. A broad curriculum provides a range of learning opportunities and an equitable academic diet, accelerating learning and development in a variety of language-rich contexts, especially necessary for students with a history of poor formal education.
  7. Creation of Post-Secondary Bridge Programs– Because many immigrant youth do not graduate on time, or require substantial remediation before entering college, bridge programs should be created or expanded to fill in this gap. Such students are disproportionately SIFE. They have typically plateaued in their language and literacy development, and require very customized instruction. They often stop attending school when they are not given adequate support. Post-secondary bridge programs would provide continued instructional support and tailored curriculum that addresses their struggles with literacy and language development. They would include vocational or technical courses that offer an alternative pathway for these students, and an internship placement to provide an incentive for the students to remain enrolled in school, while engaging in career development opportunities. The programs could utilize flexible scheduling so these generally older students can work part-time or pursue an internship. Absent a bridge program, newcomers who fail to graduate on time often dropout of formal education altogether. Such programs would maintain the support that SIFE often need beyond four years of secondary school, and provide support for the transition to college. The graduation rates of newcomer immigrant youth would improve, and students would also be better prepared for post-secondary educational opportunities.
  8. Professional Development & Curriculum Planning– The new high-stakes accountability system to evaluate teaching performance is extremely frustrating to teachers who serve newcomers at the high school level. While ensuring that teachers are serving students well is imperative, the pressure on teachers who serve newcomers and SIFE is disproportionately intense, given the significant challenges their students face. While professional development opportunities have expanded, teachers across the city, and increasingly in other parts of the country, continue serving newcomers with little training, support, or knowledge of how to adequately serve their diverse needs. Teachers need instructional specialists who understand the needs of immigrant adolescents and SIFE to coach teachers and model effective instruction for this population. Administrators also need to be educated about the unique needs of this population so that they can fairly evaluate their teachers. While teachers are expected to strengthen their instructional prowess by designing and implementing effective instruction for this particularly challenging group of students, they are not necessarily provided the time or the compensation to do so. The instructional needs of newcomers require differentiation on many levels, and schools need to invest in structures to support teachers in designing such instruction, provide widespread teacher education, and support common planning time for teachers to think strategically with colleagues about their curriculum and instruction.
  9. Increasing Language Capacity – Between 2009 and 2012, NYC public schools have seen a 31% increase in the number of students speaking Arabic (most of whom are from Yemen and have interrupted schooling) and a 23% increase of students who speak Bengali (NYCDOE, 2013). While these languages were formerly linguistic minorities, they are now on the rise. Many school districts struggle to find staff to provide instruction in these languages and lack high quality native language materials and resources in formerly low-incidence languages (NYCDOE, 2009). The school district can increase language capacity by offering language classes to teachers, by securing high quality native language instructional materials, and by investing in bilingual personnel to provide easier access to translation services.


This policy brief has outlined the challenges that newcomer immigrant youth face in high school. The acceleration of newcomers toward high school graduation is an important goal. Immigrant adolescents who finish high school on time will likely attend at least some college. Yet, accelerated academic achievement without attention to the quality of instruction, or without deep understanding of content, is meaningless and may result in students who are ill-prepared for post-secondary education or viable career opportunities. As a result, immigrant youth will remain on the educational margins. The policy solutions proposed here seek to ensure that students accelerate their path toward graduation, but do so with meaningful opportunities to learn.


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  1. In this article, newcomer immigrant youth refer to students who are foreign-born and/or who are limited in English proficiency, and designated English language learners in New York State.
  2. http://internationalsnps.org/about-us/internationals-approach

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