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December 1, 2019
Vol. 77
No. 4

Better Planning for Newcomer Students

Instead of scrambling every time a newcomer enrolls, schools must have detailed plans in place to ease these students' initial stages of adjustment.

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LeadershipPolicySocial-emotional learningSchool CultureEquity
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It was just a few years ago when a fellow teacher rushed into my third period ESL classroom, her face displaying what could only be called panic. "We've got another newcomer," she said. "Only this one speaks Arabic!" And so began the frantic efforts to establish some form of communication with this student, who not only spoke Arabic, but spoke a version incomprehensible to speakers of Arabic dialects outside her native country. This left the translators we did find frustrated, the student confused, and the rest of us at a complete loss.
Fast forward to the present: I serve as an English learner coach for an urban district in North Carolina, where I'm in and out of 81 different schools. We've now come to realize that "newcomers"—immigrant and refugee students who have recently arrived in the United States—are the new norm. They arrive almost daily—we've had 300 register in the first couple months of this school year—with a wide variety of learning needs and cultural differences.
While some school districts may have special programs to serve these students, many do not, so it falls on each individual school to meet these students' needs. As someone whose job it is to support schools in working with English learners, I've come to recognize that instead of panicking and scrambling for resources when newcomers arrive in our schools, we should be proactively preparing to meet their needs.

Complex Needs

In a district with 100 different languages represented, it's a complex process to meet every newcomer student's needs and make sure that they have the tools they need to adapt to the learning environment. Such diversity can also entail a variety of unexpected complications, such as students who don't know how to use a Western toilet, students who have religious and cultural food restrictions, students whose cultural norms clash with classroom expectations, and students who shut down because of language barriers. Many newcomer students also experience profound culture shock, which can manifest in children as physical symptoms, such as headache, stomach upset, insomnia, irritability, or inattentiveness, or as emotional symptoms, such as sadness, frustration, anxiety, anger, loneliness, and withdrawal.
We need to be equipped to anticipate these issues, which are often physiological, psychological, or social-emotional in nature, and work to address them before they become problems, thereby also ensuring they are not misinterpreted as misbehavior. Schools can sometimes be in such a hurry to meet the great academic needs newcomers have that they neglect these students' more immediate needs.
It's essential for schools today to have thought through what those needs are and to have a plan in place with specific roles laid out for personnel. Without having such a plan worked out, it is easy for these students to fade into the background, invisible until a crisis arrives. Some basic guiding questions for formulating a plan for newcomers include:
  • How will our newcomer have his or her basic needs met during the first few weeks of enrollment?
  • What vocabulary or language does the newcomer need to navigate the school day?
  • How can we give some sense of agency to the newcomer to ensure their specific needs are met?
  • What are our goals for this newcomer within the first week, month, quarter, and year?
As educators in my district began to think about meeting newcomers' needs in a systemic way, we realized that welcoming these students must be a schoolwide effort. Responsibility should not fall solely on the classroom or ESL teacher. Students' needs are best met as a collaborative effort with predetermined roles fulfilled by specified personnel. To this end, I created a sample breakdown of roles and responsibilities for my district that we've begun to introduce in training sessions (see fig. 1). The exact roles will look different in each school, since staffing and individual responsibilities differ, but they must be part of an intentional, thought-out approach to helping students successfully transition into the school environment.
Olson - Fig 1

Anticipating Needs, Providing Support

Schools cannot anticipate every linguistic and cultural challenge that will arise with each newcomer, and building relationships with families and learning about individual students' needs takes time. There is no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to serving newcomers. But we can anticipate many of their needs and provide comprehensive support to ease their initial stages of adjustment. We can lessen the burden on them so they can focus on learning English and participating meaningfully within their classrooms. We can wrap our arms around these students, as a school community, and ensure that their needs are met from the moment they set foot on our campuses. We can guarantee that newcomers have the equal access to learning that all students deserve.

Reflect & Discuss

➛ How could your school or district's approach to welcoming and accommodating newcomers be improved?

➛ Do educators in your school have a strong enough understanding of the non-academic challenges newcomer students may face?

➛ In your experience, what are the biggest issues newcomers face in adjusting? How could your school be more intentional about addressing these issues?

Author bio coming soon

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