For public schools in the United States, educating immigrant children can prove a challenge — particularly at the high school level.
Some teens arrive with a strong academic background and enough credits to put them on track for graduation, while others are years behind in school and know only a few words in English.
Yet schools are legally required to accept the students who walk through their doors, regardless of their immigration status or how well they speak the language. The question of how to educate these children has become more urgent following the wave of unaccompanied minors who entered the country beginning in 2014.
Experts say there is no one-size-fits-all solution, but some of the strategies devised by school districts have drawn criticism and even lawsuits from legal advocacy and immigrant rights groups.
In Florida, the national civil rights advocacy group Southern Poverty Law Center sued the Collier County school district in 2016 for barring immigrant teens from enrolling in high school and instead sending them to adult education programs. The federal court case is ongoing. Public schools in at least 35 school districts in 14 states have discouraged or barred immigrant students from enrolling or funneled them into alternative programs, a 2016 Associated Press investigation found.
In Miami-Dade, hundreds of immigrant teens have ended up in adult education programs, some of which are taught in Spanish, where they can only obtain the high school equivalency diploma known as a GED. This school year, roughly 1,000 of the 5,000 recently arrived teens entering the school district enrolled in a Spanish-language GED program.
Miami-Dade administrators consider the GED preparation programs a good option for 16 and 17-year-old teens who they think might not be able to pass the standardized tests required to graduate with a regular diploma. But critics say the programs aren’t a substitute for a high school education and segregate immigrant students from their peers.
And while school administrators insist that students choose whether to enroll in the GED programs, the Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald found that immigrant teens have been steered and even pushed into adult education, often without first getting a chance to attend a regular high school.
Although the Spanish GED program, called Success Management Academies, is taught at high school campuses during the day and offers some English-as-a-second language courses, students are not in classes with English-speaking students and some said they felt isolated from their peers.
Immigrant rights groups say the Miami-Dade school district should find more inclusive solutions that enable immigrant teens to graduate from high school.
“People often talk about immigrants not learning English and not integrating. Well, if we want so-called fully integrated immigrant adults who speak English, then we shouldn’t hinder their chances to integrate and learn the language at the earliest age possible, which is when they get here and can go to school,” said María Rodríguez, director of the Florida Immigrant Coalition.
Some of the more than two dozen students who spoke with the Herald/el Nuevo Herald said they had hoped to attend a regular high school in part because they wanted to adapt to the United States and learn English more quickly by making friends with American students.
“This is reminiscent of separate but equal except it appears that it is not so equal,” Rodríguez added, referring to the old racial segregation doctrine in the United States.
Yet finding a solution is not an easy task and could represent an additional financial strain on already limited public school resources.
Miami-Dade is the country’s fourth-largest school district and serves roughly 350,000 students, of which some 67,000 are English-language learners. The school district estimates that it costs an extra $2,700 per student a year to educate English-language learners. Although district spokeswoman Daisy Gonzalez-Diego stressed that funding doesn’t influence whether students are placed in GED programs or regular high schools, it does limit the services the school district is able to provide to immigrant teens in general.
A different kind of school
Some cities, including New York City, have special schools tailored to meet the needs of recently arrived immigrants. The Internationals Network For Public Schools, for example, works with more than two dozen schools across the country that serve primarily immigrant youth.
At these schools, immigrants learn English and prepare for college while also using their native language and building on the education they received in their home country, said Marguerite Lukes, the network’s director of research and innovation. Students can do research for a project in their native language, for example, or use their native language to discuss classwork with a peer, she said.
“You might see a pair of students speaking to each other in Arabic making sense of a project in U.S. history,” said Lukes, who is also the author of a book about some of the issues immigrant teens face called “Latino Immigrant Youth and Interrupted Schooling: Dropouts, Dreamers and Alternative Pathways to College.”
Schools like those in the Internationals Network demonstrate that recently arrived immigrant students can be successful in high school, Lukes added.
“We do know that if you make the investment and you make the effort and you rethink what you’re doing, you can demonstrate much more success with students,” she said.
The best approach to addressing the needs of recent immigrants depends partly on their level of schooling, said Pedro Noguera, an education professor at the UCLA Graduate School of Education & Information Studies. Students who are well-educated in their native language typically learn English quickly, he said, and should be integrated into traditional schools. But for students who are behind in school, a newcomer school like the ones in the Internationals Network might be a better option, he said.
“Students with interrupted formal education who are not literate in their language often benefit from being in a newcomer school, especially if the teachers are skilled in language instruction,” he said.
But this approach also has its critics. Rodríguez said that for her, the program still amounts to segregation.
“You are still separating them,” she said. “We should give them an education [in a regular high school], allow them to learn English and provide them with the same opportunities to explore that all other students have.”
Asked whether the Miami-Dade school district has considered alternatives to GED programs like the Internationals Network model or more English-language support in regular high schools, Gonzalez-Diego said the school district already has a robust English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) program. The program includes reading and language arts classes as well as the use of teachers’ aides, she said.
“The district’s K-12 ESOL programs are continuously focused on providing support through a variety of measures to assist all students with the goal of acquiring a diploma,” Gonzalez-Diego said.
As an added support, however, Gonzalez-Diego said the school district would like to see the state fund intensive English courses for recently arrived immigrants.
Tests in multiple languages
Some states offer standardized tests in languages other than English. In New York, for example, students who are still learning English can get written translations of the exams or — if they speak a language in which the test isn’t available — an oral translation.
The sweeping federal education law known as the Every Student Succeeds Act, passed in 2015, stipulates that states with a significant number of English-language learners who speak the same native language must “make every effort” to offer standardized tests in that language.
These immigrants came for a better education. Now, they’ll never graduate high school
In Florida, the Miami-Dade school district has advocated for the State Legislature to give immigrant students more options for earning standard high school diplomas, including allowing them to take the Florida Standards Assessment, which is required for graduation, in Spanish.
“Miami-Dade County Public Schools has always been eager to ensure that newly arrived immigrants receive a high school diploma and would support good legislative or regulatory proposals to this end,” Gonzalez-Diego said.
The Florida Department of Education did not respond to questions from the Herald/el Nuevo Herald about this issue, but according to a 2017 report from Education Week, state officials have been reluctant to provide standardized tests in languages other than English. Although Florida is home to more than 250,000 English-language learners, many of whom speak Spanish or Haitian Creole, Florida education officials have argued that the state constitution establishes English as the official language.
After the Herald/el Nuevo Herald inquired about the Miami-Dade school district’s policies, Gonzalez-Diego said Miami-Dade is planning to review the Spanish GED program and make some changes, including requiring verification that parents have agreed to send their kids to the alternative program.
“Although the program was created with pure intentions, there is room for reassuring its integrity,” she said.
Tatyana Kleyn, a professor at City College of New York who studies immigrant education, said one key to providing education to immigrant students is flexibility. Students may need to stay in high school past the age of 18, get more time to pass standardized tests, or have school scheduling options that accommodate their needs, she said.
In Florida, there are no laws setting a maximum age limit at which students aren’t allowed to be in high school. The Miami-Dade school district treats age limits “on a case-by-case basis,” Gonzalez-Diego said.
For Kleyn, school districts have a responsibility to find the resources it takes to educate recently arrived teens.
“It’s our responsibility to serve them,” Kleyn said, referring to schools nationwide. “We can’t say, ‘Oh, we’re only serving monolingual students.’ That’s not how our public school system works.”
Lena Jackson’s reporting was made possible with funding from the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Howard G. Buffett Fund for Women Journalists.
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