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Op-ed: How the school system can support immigrant children – Crain's New York Business

Among the most vulnerable students in New York City public schools are newly arrived immigrants. Newcomer students make up roughly half of New York City public school English language learners, or ELLs, who themselves make up roughly 15% of the city’s public school students.
The students often live in poverty as their parents work to find a footing in their new country. It is challenging to acclimate to a new language and culture, but it is particularly hard for those who are adolescents. Imagine, then, what these children experienced when schools shut down due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Even before the pandemic, newcomer immigrant youths were at high risk of dropping out of high school, and the risks have only become more acute. Data suggest that immigrant and ELL students have left school at higher rates than other groups during the pandemic—an estimated 1.2 million students nationwide.
According to testimony this year by Advocates for Children of New York, almost 1 in 4 New York City ELLs dropped out of high school in 2020, and only 46% graduated high school in four years. In January 2021 attendance among ELL 10th graders was 10 percentage points lower than it was in 2019.
Newcomer youth were also particularly vulnerable to the stresses of the pandemic—which accelerated a mental health crisis among all young people. Concentrated in New York neighborhoods hardest hit by the pandemic and often experiencing extreme economic insecurity, stripped of supportive networks in their home country and with inadequate technology and sometimes only fragile connections to peers and teachers, the students were set adrift when schools shut down.
To address the heightened challenges newcomer youths face, New York City needs to invest in a thoughtful, education-based infrastructure. There are 15 Internationals Network high schools in the city, focused on the needs of adolescent, immigrant ELLs. The schools have a relatively successful track record of serving and graduating their multilingual students. There also are five ELL transfer schools designed to meet the needs of newly arrived immigrants ages 16 to 21.
Of the more than 500 New York City high schools, 83% enroll ELLs. And at most of the schools, particularly at those where ELLs make up a small share of the student body, ELL graduation rates are distressingly low.
Practices that are responsive to newcomer students’ needs must be more widely adopted. Schools serving large numbers of newcomer immigrants, for example, should become “trauma-informed” to ensure students feel safe, supported and prepared to learn. Providing a social-emotional learning curriculum that is culturally appropriate for newcomer children is key.
Finally, we need an educator workforce that is both culturally competent and linguistically diverse. We also need to adopt technologies that enable educators to communicate with families in their home language.
Fortunately, many educators, administrators, politicians and community advocates in the New York area are actively engaged in such efforts, advocating for appropriate attention to be dedicated to the newcomer population. And the city recently communicated an intention to invest in expanded services.
At Columbia University’s Teachers College, we are conducting research to identify key practices that support the mental health and academic success of newcomer students so that schools can more effectively serve them.
The energy and success of New York City—and our nation—have always relied on the contributions of new Americans. We owe them schooling experiences that empower their youth to succeed and thrive.
Prerna Arora is an assistant professor of school psychology at Columbia University’s Teachers College. Lorey Wheeler is an associate research professor with the Nebraska Center for Research on Children, Youth, Families and Schools.
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