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How Policy May Undermine Schools Serving Newcomer Immigrant Youth

Updated: Sep 1, 2023

Introduction by: Lisa Pamela Lopez-Escobar and Sophia Rodriguez University of Maryland, College Park

Guest Bloggers: Adriana Villavicencio, PhD; Verenisse Ponce Soria, PhD student; Kelley Riffenburgh, PhD student; Daniel Garcia, PhD student; University of California, Irvine

September 1, 2023

In our first blog of the new academic year, Dr. Adriana Villavicencio and colleagues from the University of California, Irvine share insights from their research-practice partnership with the Internationals Network for Public Schools. With the increased politicization of our education system, our guest bloggers reveal how local and state policies may be undermining the schools’ efforts to support newcomer students. By interrogating the added barriers caused by policies such as mandated curricula and standardized, English-only testing, Dr. Villavicencio and colleagues explore the innovative ways educators navigate these systems to help their newcomer students to thrive. To learn more about the Internationals Network, check out Dr. Villavicencio’s prior work “What’s going to happen to us?”: Cultivating alliances with immigrant families in an adverse political climate and “You can’t close your door here:” Leveraging teacher collaboration to improve outcomes for immigrant English Learners.

We welcome additional comments and reflections, please email us at: or through the Immigrant Ed Next website.

By Dr. Adriana Villavicencio, Verenisse Ponce Soria, Kelley Riffenburgh and Daniel Garcia

School leaders and teachers exercise a relatively high degree of autonomy in the daily decision-making processes that shape schools and classrooms. At the same time, they must operate within an ecosystem of regulations and policies that either support or constrain their day-to-day practice. This is especially true today given the increased politicization of our educational systems and the expanded role of groups like Moms for Liberty that seek to restrict what students learn. We examine the implications of these layered forces within the context of schools serving newcomer youth. We pay close consideration to how policies at multiple levels might interfere with schools’ capacity to support students’ academic goals and wellbeing.

Studying the Internationals Network

Our work is grounded in a research-practice partnership with the Internationals Network for Public Schools. The Internationals Network is a national network of 32 public schools and academies across the country that serve recently arriving immigrant multilingual students. Both the Internationals schools and academies are designed to address the limitations of traditional public schools, including (a) relegating newcomers to classes focused on English language development to the exclusion of academic content, (b) limited opportunities for teachers to collaborate with colleagues outside their discipline, and (c) subtractive schooling models that fail to view students’ home languages and cultures as assets.

In contrast, the students in Internationals schools take rigorous credit-bearing academic coursework that meets graduation requirements from the very first day of school, regardless of their English proficiency and academic preparation. The curriculum is also culturally and linguistically responsive, while fostering English language development across content areas. Second, the Network provides teachers with ongoing professional development and time during the school day to collaboratively develop project-based interdisciplinary curricula. Finally, Internationals disrupt subtractive schooling models by honoring students’ multiple identities, cultivating relationships with families, and addressing students’ academic and non-academic needs through external partnerships.

Disruptive Policies

We are currently engaged in a study of eight Internationals Academies from four different regions across the country. While our work has documented the success of the Internationals model, our interviews with school leaders, guidance counselors, and teachers across sites have surfaced a number of local and state policies that have challenged the implementation of the model:

1. Mandates on time in ESL/ELD courses. As described above, Internationals’ students take credit-bearing courses even while they are working towards English proficiency. Some states and districts, however, mandate a certain number of semesters in ESL/ELD classes before taking credit-bearing coursework, thereby holding back students’ progress towards graduation, and increasing the likelihood of dropping out. At the same time, some academies are facing a new push for students to be automatically transitioned out of the Internationals program after two years. This removal would disrupt a core part of the model - heterogeneous levels of English mastery across four years of high school - and deny students essential supports in the 11th and 12th grade.

2. Standardized and English-only testing. Historically, some states have accepted growth scores from tests like WIDA, an English proficiency assessment tool, as a gauge of student performance. However, as some districts turn away from measuring growth over time, high-stakes standardized testing may incentivize teachers to revert to traditional practices and test-centered curricula. Related to standardized testing are policies that restrict teachers from testing in students’ native language. Because integration of content and language development is a key pillar of the model, Internationals’ teachers often incorporate texts and tests in students’ native language to assess students’ mastery of content. Policies that restrict teachers from testing in students’ native language prevents educators from knowing their students' mastery of content (apart from their level of English proficiency).

3. Assessments for students with disabilities. Well-intentioned policies meant to prevent overdiagnosis of learning disabilities among ELs have inadvertently made it difficult for Internationals’ teachers to provide ELs with genuine learning disabilities the testing and Individualized Education Programs they need. Even though many teachers are professionally trained to distinguish between emergent English proficiency and signs of a learning disability, it can take months of relentless advocacy to finally get students tested and receive the additional support they need to thrive.

4. Mandated curricula. In addition to a barrage of tests at the state and district level, Internationals’ teachers must also contend with mandated curricula from the district that prohibits teachers from creating and delivering the interdisciplinary, project-based curricula that is a hallmark of the model. While the district’s curriculum may work for other populations, it is not designed to serve the academic needs of newcomer youth nor consider their linguistic and cultural resources.

These examples underscore the complex, layered forces that may undermine how well school leaders and teachers can serve newcomer students. As our study on the International Academies heads into a second year, we will continue to document these barriers to implementation, while exploring innovative responses to these challenges, the ways educators navigate these systems, and any evidence of creative compliance that other sites might adopt in their local contexts. Ultimately, we hope this work will be able to influence both policy and practice that better support the long-term outcomes of newcomer youth.

Be sure to follow us or tweet about #ImmigrantEdNext

Suggested Citation: Lopez-Escobar, L., Rodriguez, S., Villavicencio, A., Ponce Soria, V., Riffenburgh, K., Garcia, D. (2023, September 1). How Policy May Undermine Schools Serving Newcomer Youth. Immigrant Ed Next.

Copyright © 2022: Sophia Rodriguez, Immigrant Ed Next-All Rights Reserved

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