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How to Support Newcomer Immigrant and Refugee Students in Secondary School

By Jason Greenberg Motamedi, Lorna Porter, and Sara Taylor | February 26, 2021


Jason Greenberg Motamedi
Jason Greenberg Motamedi is a practice expert at Education Northwest. His research supports educators in the Pacific Northwest and across the country in the areas of English learner student instruction and related issues, such as teacher development for bilingual and dual-language instruction.

Every newcomer immigrant or refugee student arrives in the United States with a distinct story. Students come from different countries for different reasons. They speak various home languages and represent a range of English proficiency, informed by diverse experiences with formal education. Along with their families, each student also holds different dreams and aspirations for their future education and career.

Given this great diversity, how can schools ensure that they leverage each newcomer student's strengths, tailor support to each student's needs, and hear each student's story?

One key step is creating and implementing a comprehensive process to welcome, register, and support newcomer immigrant and refugee students to school.

For newcomer immigrant and refugee students entering school in secondary grades, this process is especially critical: These students face tighter timelines to high school graduation compared to their peers who arrive in earlier grades. Within a few short years, secondary-level newcomer immigrant and refugee students must acclimate to a new country, learn grade-level content, and fulfill testing and academic requirements to graduate and qualify for their preferred postsecondary opportunities. On top of this, many must simultaneously learn English.

Sara Taylor
Sara Taylor is a qualitative researcher and project manager at Education Northwest. Her large-scale data collection, management, and analysis support contributes to the success of projects across the organization.

To help education leaders respond to students' needs, REL Northwest has created Welcoming, Registering, and Supporting Newcomer Students: A Toolkit for Educators of Immigrant and Refugee Students in Secondary Schools. The toolkit links to evidence-based tools and resources that can immediately be used or adapted to address the diversity of experiences within this specific student group.

An accompanying infographic illustrates how education leaders might structure the many crucial steps in the registration process for newcomer immigrant and refugee students in secondary school. These steps include identifying students' proficiency in English, home language literacy, competencies and appropriate course placement, and history with formal education, including transferrable credits or possible gaps. During registration, schools should also interview students and families about their expectations and goals related to the student's postsecondary education or career.

Throughout the welcome and registration process, it is important that schools recognize that newcomer immigrant and refugee families have diverse cultural norms and expectations about schooling. By helping newcomer families understand the U.S. school system and U.S. cultural norms about parent involvement in education, school leaders can build partnerships and cross-cultural understanding that can position families and students for success.

A complementary newcomer toolkit produced by the Office of English Language Acquisition (OELA) at the U.S. Department of Education may provide additional support for school and district leaders as they help newcomer immigrant and refugee students and their families adapt to U.S. schools. The OELA toolkit provides more instructional resources and strategies, as well as guidance on supporting the social and emotional needs of newcomer immigrant and refugee students.

The Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) program is committed to serving newcomer immigrant and refugee students, as well as English learner students more broadly, by providing them with supports that are tailored to their unique needs. Learn more about the REL program's work supporting English learner students across all grade levels.