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Newcomer Students in Rural and Suburban Communities

Insights for school and district leaders on how to welcome and support amid shifting demographics
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Where are America’s immigrant families settling, and where are their children going to school? With immigrant populations in rural and small-town America on the rise, the answer, increasingly, is everywhere.

Between 2000 and 2016, South Dakota, South Carolina, North Dakota, and Tennessee experienced the largest percentage increases in immigrant population in the United States. In parts of Texas, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Kansas, and Iowa, newcomer families are actually reversing native-born population loss. Maine has welcomed immigrants and refugees fleeing conflict in Africa, and 1 in 12 of the state’s residents now are native-born citizens with at least one immigrant parent. In Minnesota, the number of English learner (EL) students has grown by more than 300 percent in the past 20 years.

These shifting demographics pose unique challenges for rural and suburban schools, many of which are unaccustomed to educating English learners and recent immigrants — or indeed to living in diverse communities. We spoke with Martina Wagner, a longtime teacher and EL expert based in Minnesota, about how these once-homogenous districts can welcome and serve newcomer students.

EL and immigrant students collectively speak over 400 languages. Some recent immigrants may have had highly disrupted, informal educational experiences, and others may have regularly attended western-style schools.

Here, Wagner’s advice on what school leaders should keep in mind so that every student, regardless of the languages she speaks or where she was born, receives a rigorous, accessible education.

Newcomer Students are a Diverse Group

First and most important: Don’t generalize about EL and immigrant students, because they are a vastly diverse group.

  • They collectively speak over 400 languages.
  • Some may have arrived in the United States in the past month, and others may be second- or third-generation immigrants who didn’t learn English at home.
  • Some recent immigrants may have had highly disrupted, limited, or informal educational experiences, and others may have regularly attended western-style schools.
  • Students coming from the same country may still have vastly different needs. Citing her own state’s example, Wagner says, for instance, that students coming to Minnesota from Somalia 20 years ago presented more basic EL needs, but Minnesota’s newer population of Somali immigrants tend to have a very conservative approach to education, which affects how schools can involve students in art and music activities.

Integrating Students into Predominantly White, Native English-Speaking Communities

For districts with very few immigrant or EL students, school leaders should first prioritize:

  • Being culturally responsive to foster a sense of belonging among new families.
  • Setting up a system of supports for newcomer students and their families, based on each one’s unique needs.
  • Employing EL licensed teachers — and, if possible, employing educators from the same ethnic background as newcomer students.

Maintain a Curriculum That’s Rigorous and Accessible

One challenge for school districts not used to newcomers is maintaining high expectations. In these cases, advises Wagner, “You don’t reduce the rigor. You change the supports.” While EL students likely need assistance accessing academic content, they are entitled to an education that is just as rigorous as their native-speaking peers. Educators should offer them the language supports they require to complete the same assignments as their native-speaking peers.

Remember that newcomer students may face cultural barriers as well as language ones. A student won’t perform well on a reading assessment if the content in the passage — American television shows or local history, for example — is something she’s unfamiliar with. Curricula “can and should be accessible to all students, including ELs,” says Wagner.

Teachers shouldn’t highlight only the challenges newcomers have faced, which could unintentionally reduce immigrant students to stereotypes. Instead, let students share a complete picture of themselves — their family, favorite sports and music, and dreams.

Put Families’ Needs First

Supporting families is essential, says Wagner.

  • Ask families what their needs are, and how the school district can help. Those needs may not be education-focused — better access to healthcare or food, for example — but addressing them will support children’s learning.
  • Prepare for a diverse set of needs. Some families may have their basic needs taken care of, but may need assistance adjusting to western-style education.
  • Celebrate families who advocate for their children. Too often, newcomer families feel intimidated or unwelcomed by school systems. When a parent speaks out about her child’s needs, thank him and integrate that feedback into your teaching.

Don’t Let Students’ Hardships Define Them

It’s helpful for native students to learn about the diverse backgrounds and experiences of immigrant peers. But teachers shouldn’t highlight only the challenges newcomers have faced, warns Wagner. That limited sharing could unintentionally reduce immigrant students to stereotypes. Instead, let students share a complete picture of themselves — their family, favorite sports and music, and dreams.

At the high school level, educators can empower immigrant students to facilitate conversations across difference with native-speaking peers and staff. In schools where Wagner has worked, this activity has used the expertise of multilingual students to build the capacity of monolingual students. Both groups, she says, leave these conversations realizing and deconstructing preconceived notions about each other.

A Distinctive Set of Needs

new report from the Council of Chief State School Officers explores the emotional needs of recently arrived immigrant English learners and offers advice to state and local education agencies. The report says that these newcomers arrive in the U.S. at all grade levels and with varied English proficiency, varied educational backgrounds, and varied home language literacy levels. They bring unique assets, but they've often contended with trauma, interrupted schooling, and jarring dislocations, calling for policy responses that can meet complex needs.

Illustration: Wilhelmina Peragine


Schools serve as a key point of welcome for immigrant and refugee children in America, but politics and changing demographics are complicating how we assist these newcomers. In a special series, we look at the strategies and practices that best support newcomer students and their families. Read more in Welcoming Newcomers.

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