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.