Serving the Academic needs of Immigrant Youth: Confronting Barriers to Student Success

Serving the Academic needs of Immigrant Youth: Confronting Barriers to Student Success

by Margary Martin

I hope to address many educators, many of whom are way ahead of the research community in developing promising approaches to better serve children of migration in their respective contexts. One of the foci of my own work has been to identify and tell the story of grassroots efforts and innovations that have been successful in improving the prospects for immigrant origin youth, and in particular for youth whose heritage is non-European, and often who live in contexts where their presence implicitly or explicitly controversial and sometimes even hostile. As the global economy changes and nations compete to maintain power or become players in what is referred to as the new global age, education has been commonly described as more important than ever before. As a result, there has been a call to arms for all students to pursue higher levels of education or training than ever before.

In addition, as mass immigrations continue to impact nations around the world, increased attention to the impact of these migrations have emerged. Both in host countries with longstanding histories of immigration such as the US and Australia and those who are experiencing large demographic changes due to large-wave immigration for the first time in centuries such as Sweden and Denmark, concerns around the integration of new immigrants and the education of their children has become the front and center in the politics of integration as sites of central importance to the successful adaptation of immigrants (Suarez- Orozco, 2004; Blum, 2004; Goodman & Carey, 2004; Torres, 1998). In spite of this focus, however, education systems have been slow to adapt to the demands of preparing students for the global era and large numbers of students are failing to gain the skills necessary to become successful (Crul & Vermeulen, 2003; PISA, 2007). This failure is disproportionately impacting racial and ethnic minorities including immigrant origin youth of similar backgrounds who also contend with structural racism, marginalization, and segregation. There is substantial evidence that context at the local, regional, national and international level matters, and that any educational policy that ignores how trends operating at these levels impact classrooms and schools is a policy will ultimately fail (Reich, 1992).

Within educational communities there have been growing concerns about student engagement at school and its relationship to acculturation, or a student’s “sense of belonging and participation” (Suarez-Orozco, M; Willms, 2003). This concern is also not limited to the US. In its 2003 report on secondary schools, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) concluded that among 26 OECD nations that student school disengagement is widespread. While education policymakers and practitioners often reason that student disengagement is a result of poor student attitudes, family problems, or cultural background rather than educational institutions, the OECD reminds us that this explanation is misguided: “It cannot be inferred that low student engagement during the secondary school years is simply the consequence of family-related risk factors, such as poverty, low parental education or poor cognitive ability. Moreover, there is ample evidence that the school environment has a strong effect on children’s participation and sense of belonging” (Willms, 2003, p. 10).

Regardless of class, ethnicity or national origin, educators lament the disengagement of students in their schools; however, the consequences of disengagement is much greater for students who are poor, of ethnically divergent backgrounds, and/or students who are new to the country. Some education reformers recognize that schools need to be structured to provide these underserved populations of students with the kinds of opportunities provided in more privileged schools and settings, through designing schools whose aims are to both improve student performance by addressing academic engagement and access to opportunities associated with upward mobility.
That said, the majority of research focuses on the problems with children rather than their successes, and understudies the societal, neighbourhood, and school factors that directly impact their experiences in schools.

The problem with problematizing: Two kinds of explanations dominant the research landscape. First, educators may use “common sense” notions, often attenuated with essentialist and potentially racist or xenophobic discourse on how to best engage students. This can be found in cultural deficit models that tend to explain under-achievement primarily as a function of an individual’s cultural background, or biological explanations that promote culturally biased measures such as the IQ as objective measures of student ability (e.g. The Bell Jar, recent comments by Watson). Second, when students fail to be engaged by the intended initiative, they could easily be blamed for not “taking advantage” of a particular reform. As such, little changes are made in efforts to improve the educational outcomes or integration of immigrant origin youth because structural realities are not held accountable for the failure of these youth. Innovative educators recognize that for students to do better, one must change how schools serve their students, assess how students respond to their efforts, and adapt to best meet their needs.

Further, much of the research on which educators draw their reforms have been conducted on native, majority youth or fitted retro-actively on large datasets where research divides students into large pan-ethnic labels that do not take into account the great diversity within ethnic groups (Fredricks et al, 2004). By limiting ethnicity and gender to static characteristics, we can set up false comparisons, that while useful in identifying trends, are of little use at the practical level and can even hurt the very students we are trying to help. This problem is becoming more urgent over time as great influxes of immigrants are changing the composition a country’s student population. (Noguera, 2004, Suarez-Orozco, 2008, NCES, 2007).

This dearth of understanding is of both theoretical and practical importance. Theoretically, it does not allow for the role of diversity and variation within and across populations of students and across contexts to be well understood, limiting our conceptual understanding of academic engagement. Furthermore, and of practical, how do reformers know that their particular approaches are appropriate for the populations of students whom they serve? We are all well aware of the problems facing immigrant origin youth, and this focus on these problems sometimes have unintended consequences that may further contribute to their
failures: but there are examples of schools that are successfully educating their students within the constraints of their host context. And it is on these innovations that I’d like to focus our attention to today.

To better understand how an educational environment responds to the needs of its students, I borrow from Human Ecology Theory. Human Ecology theory, also known as Ecological System Theory was developed by Uri Bronfenbrenner (Bronfenbrenner, 1979). Heavily influenced by Vygotsky’s cultural-historical psychological theory, Bronfenbrenner’s theory views a child’s development as occurring within a system of relationships that shape his/her environment. Bronfenbrenner’s theory describes the ways in which complex “layers” of environment interact, each having an effect upon a child’s development.

In his work he describes four types of nested environmental systems that influence a child’s development:

  1. The microsystem of social relationships that have direct and immediate influences upon a child (e.g. the family, neighbors, or peer group)
  2. The mesosystem that creates a local context and sets the parameters under which the microsystems are operative (e.g. home-school, family-neighborhood)
  3. the exosystem which refers to the physical and economic environment that can influence development indirectly and
  4.  at the outermost layer the macrosystem, which is the larger cultural and political context that also impacts child development even if their influences are the most indirect (e.g. laws, demographic patterns, economic trends, etc.).

While I will not touch as much on this layer today, the outmost layer or “chronosystem”, which refers to the sociohistorical context in which the child lives, is also important for all of us to keep in mind.

So, what are the structural barriers faced by immigrant origin youth? Well it all depends. To better educate students of migration background, we often overlook the macro and exosystems that very much influence the lives of our students. I’d like to take a moment to take a look at these large contexts in which I draw my examples from the research today.

In spite of these differences in the macrosystem, these barriers often manifest themselves similarly in different societies. For example in both the US and Sweden, at the exo-level immigrant origin youth face similar barriers to success: Concentrated Poverty, Social Isolation, Legal Status, Racism and discrimination, while to greater extent in some countries than in others, a lack of access to the labour market, a relative lack of voice in political and policy decisions that impact their lives.

Today I will be presenting examples of practice from our research in the US conducted at the Metropolitan Center for Urban Education, and Immigration Studies at NYU, and my comparative research in Sweden, which was part of a larger research project led by the Social Science Research Council and funded by the US National Science Foundation. First, I’d like to provide the larger research context in order to better understand how the examples relate to the national contexts in which these reforms have taken place.

  • Large waves of immigration in particular over the past 15 years
  • Stringent immigration standards  (Resident visas, Refugee youth) 
  • The most progressive pathways to citizenship of all receiving countries - after 4 years can apply for citizenship 
  • Cradle to Grave welfare and education system 
  • Laws that protect against discrimination in education and the work place

However, segregation persists

  • high unemployment among immigrant population
  • and lower educational outcomes
  • Cultural clashes between Swedes and immigrants is on the rise, and Sweden continues to struggle at the macrolevel about the long term implications of immigration and their beliefs about a pluralistic Swedish society

As a country relatively new to immigration, it is too soon to know the extent to which following generations will be integrated into Swedish society or succumb to similar outcomes to their European neighbors with longer immigration histories.

Immigration, as it is well known has been an entirely different phenomenon in the United States:

  • Immigration is part of the national fabric and history
  • New immigration is 80% people from Latin America, the Caribbean, and Asia
  • Undocumented immigration from Mexico and Central America has become highly controversial

Immigration is highly diverse:

  • Pull in: draining top intellectual capital from countries around the world
  • Pushed out: High number of people pushed out of depressed economies in their home countries

Immigrating into an increasingly bifurcated, hourglass society:

  • Upward mobility increasingly difficult with shrinking middle class
  • The poorer immigrants more likely to become part of the permanent underclass
  • the poor are particularly vulnerable to the historical inequitable education systems in the US where the poor and racial minorities have been traditionally underserved.

As I noted earlier, today we need to educate our students for a global economy, but at the same time we need to teach our children from migration backgrounds how to cope with, respond to, and ultimately be successful as possible in the countries in which they live. In short, we need to instill both resiliency and agency for our youth if they are going to be able to survive in difficult social contexts and ultimately break through barriers and become successful. As such, I have identified for criteria for inclusion of the innovations I am calling our attention to today. Innovative school practices:

  • Connect the immediate academic needs of students to multiple concrete outcomes that prepare youth for labour participation in the global economy
  • Provide bridges that connect students to services and opportunities
  • Design culturally responsive curriculum that builds on the interests and real-life challenges faced by students in the school
  • Build resilience through empowering students with critical thinking skills, strategies and to address societal challenges.

Drawing from both the United States and Sweden, I will present examples under each of these criteria. Connecting the immediate academic needs of students to multiple concrete outcomes that prepare youth for labour participation in the global economy.

I spent 5 months in a Swedish Secondary School that served almost entirely children of immigrants, primarily of refugee background. They were a diverse group, from all around the Red Sea and South Asia, and from Muslim, Christian, and secular backgrounds. Most came from places that have been torn by war and famine in the late 1980s and early 1990’s. This school, like all schools I will present are not perfect and have to continually adapt, try, and adapt again in their quest to serve their students well. But that said, during my time there, there were several innovations that were promising:

Entrepreneurship program: Capstone Project

  • Internship with increasing responsibility over time 
  • Culmination of a project based on interests of students 
  • Presentation of findings through technology (Laptops for all students and Training in film/editing to prepare a sophisticated presentation)

Mentoring Program

  • Connected students in the school’s economics and natural sciences programs to Swedish business people and medical school students
    Variable Success 
  • Highly dependent on individual personalities and commitments of the mentors 
  • Highly dependent on the extent to which students pursue their mentors (Potential cultural conflicts on what is the appropriate help-seeking behaviours of students)

School wide Access to Technology

  • Laptops for all students 
  • School wide IT network & In-house repair
    Variable Success 
  • Highly dependent on the extent to which teachers or tech savvy 
  • Highly dependent on teachers’ skill in using laptops to enhance learning
  • Use of technology to evaluate performance in debates
  • Use of the network to submit, respond to student work and virtual discussions

While the United States is well known as an immigrant country, there are many small towns that have not seen immigration since their families arrived from Sweden, Italy, and Ireland during the turn of the past century. As such, the influx of new immigrants that are quite different than the locals is more similar to what is happening in Sweden than in New York City. I have spent a lot of time in a remarkable elementary school in one of these small townships, who’s down a remarkable of job of addressing the needs of their immigrant children. Most of the children in this school are children of undocumented parents, and many of them are undocumented themselves. This leaves these families in an especially precarious position in the US.

While there is not much offered to legal immigrants in the US, the undocumented live in further deficit as they stay in the shadows without any protection. Further, at the exo-level, the absence of healthcare services, and the ways schools are funded in the US, schools that serve the poor have particular challenges in meeting the needs of its kids.

As a result, this school has taken a comprehensive approach to serving both the children who attend their schools and their families. They do this by: Providing Medical and Social Services to children and their families

  • On-site health centre
  • ESL classes for adults
  • Welcome closet with clothes and furniture provided by wealthy women’s club in the county
  • Parenting groups
  • Mental health services for children dealing with the trauma related to the migration process
  • Bilingual staff members
  • Comprehensive after-school programs for remediation and enrichment

Further, the school recognized the difficulty in finding teachers who were well prepared to meet the needs of their growing immigrant population. Hence, they forged a relationship with a local university and have turned their school into a “professional development school” where prospective teachers are trained, and new teachers supported.

To support all their endeavors, finally the school has worked on Building community support and advocacy at the State and National Level

  • Testifying on education laws that impact English Language Learners
  • Inviting community members and politicians in to see what is possible

So, how on earth does this school make it all work?

Because the act of daily instruction remains the best predictor of student performance, the child and teacher sit at the center of our model (see fig. 1). All partners provide support to both student and teachers. As part of School's overarching goal to “provide for the needs of the whole child” it has formed a partnership with the local liberal arts college (University Partner). Both the university and community partners also provide direct services to the students as noted earlier. There are also examples of cross-partner collaboration, when for example one of the CBO parent programs partnered with the University partner to bring parents to the campus of the University Partners to learn about higher education. While there are additional multiple partnerships with a number of Community agencies and CBOs who provide services on-site as well as outside professional development and district initiatives, we focus only on the primary partnerships here to demonstrate how these supports are central to the school’s ability to enhance students’ language and literacy development.

In addition to its work with students, the university partnership provides professional development to support teachers and facilitate action research. The CBOs work with individual teachers to address physical, emotional and learning needs of individual students and support classroom practice. Furthermore, the two communities focus their attention on additional constituents of concern for their work as previously described. For example, as a professional development school, the University Partner collaborates with the school provides on site-based methods courses and student teacher placements at the school as part of its preservice teaching program. The CBOs are also the primary mechanism serving the families of students in the school offering ESL instruction to adults and parenting support groups. So, each community in fact has three goals: to serve students, teachers, and last - within their traditional domains of teacher education and family services - pre-service teachers and parents.

To give you an idea of how successful the school has been, when the school first began to build its initiatives only 17% of it’s 9-year olds scored at proficiency the state English Language Arts exam, in the latest test results 98% reached proficiency levels or above on the exam.

Participatory Action Research with students has been some of the most promising innovations in bridging academics with the lives of kids. In this next example, I take from the work of my colleague Nicholas Handville, who lead a project with minority, immigrant, and white youth in a ethnically and economically mixed school outside of New York City.

The Research team Project

  • Partnership between university, high school and community health organization
  • Student participants were provided summer employment to conduct their initial research
  • Received training in quantitative and qualitative research

The Research team Project

  • First they identified a problem in the community: lack of organized activities for teenaged youth
  • Conducted survey to collect information
  • Presented and made recommendations to city board
  • Students now serve on community and school committees with adults at school
  • And finally, they created a webpage for youth in community to discuss school issues

Participatory Action Research can also be used to simultaneously build academic and research skill in addresses the larger issues confronting immigrant and minority communities. I would quickly like to present three such examples from urban schools from two cities in the US.

Uncovering the past: a historical neighbourhood study

  • Cross-curricular study in history and language arts
  • Conducted primary research on history of the neighbourhood including document analysis of city ordinances and newspaper clippings, interviews with older residents
  • Published Findings in a report that was distributed across the city and presented to community
  • Brought alive the buried history of a neighbourhood

Confronting the Present: Ongoing scientific monitoring to preserve and improve a local river

  • Students conduct water and ecology tests 
  • Create public service announcements 
  • Work with local preservation society to protect and improve the local river
  • Gain scientific skills, advocacy skills, and make a positive difference in their neighbourhood

Advocating for change in an urban middle school: Studying environmental racism 

  • Asthma rates are disproportionately high in certain parts of this urban city
  • 13 year old students studied the air pollution in partnership with local health agencies and advocacy groups, and created public service announcements to bring public awareness to the problem
  • The attention to this problem in their neighbourhood has become a model for other communities confronting environmental racism in their areas.

Youth who have been marginalized from the greater society are often left to their own devices to addresses the inequities they face. When schools ignore these larger realities, no matter how well meaning, we in effect are saying to kids that they don’t matter. For educators to reach students, they need to adapt how they teach to meet the needs of their students. But this adaptation does not necessarily mean sacrificing academic rigor as we’ve seen in the examples I’ve offered today. To get started here are a few things you can do to become more culturally responsive now:

  • Learn about your students and their families
  • Learn about your students’ communities and the issues they face
  • Work with local organizations to develop bridges and create curriculum that simultaneously build academic skills and create positive change in their communities and prepares them for the wider challenges they will face in the future.


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February 2008

Margary Martin is Senior Research Associate at the Institute for Globalization & Education in Metropolitan Settings at New York University.