January/February 2024

Serving Newcomer Students: Voices From the Field

By Alaynah Garibay and Rebecca Vonderlack-Navarro, Latino Policy Forum

This article provides Illinois exemplars of how different school districts are addressing the needs of newcomers to the United States. It is the second article of a two-part series that explores ways schools can support this popula­tion. The first, Ensuring Success for Newcomer Students” is avail­able in the November/December 2023 issue of the Illinois School Board Journal.

“Newcomers” is an umbrel­la term for newly arrived for­eign-born students. These students typically do not have mastery of the English language and their families may be unfamiliar with the U.S. school system.

School districts across Illinois are welcoming students from across the globe who are enrolling in US schools for the first time. Some have faced trauma from leaving war-torn countries. For some unac­companied minors, they made the journey alone and without any economic or emotional support. Yet others are seeking asylum in the United States due to persecution faced in their home country.

This article was informed by interviews with school leaders from Berwyn North SD 98, School Dis­trict U-46 (Elgin), North Palos SD 117, Skokie SD 68, and Moline-Coal Valley SD 40. Some of these districts had been developing strong infra­structures to support English Learn­ers over the years with various types of instructional designs. Many had invested in professional development of teachers and formation of family engagement and support services. School leaders described ways in which they enhanced their program designs to ensure the academic suc­cess of newcomers through innova­tive dual-language programming.

Instructional Designs for English Learners

The districts provided various instructional designs for newcom­ers depending on student demo­graphics and needs. For example, some districts serve students who speak a variety of low-incident languages (e.g., Arabic, Urdu, Rus­sian) other districts are receiving largely Spanish-speaking students from Central and South America. Typical program designs include:

Transitional Program of Instruction (TPI) – A program with accelerated English as a Sec­ond Language instruction which offers strong family engagement, native language paraprofessionals, community volunteers, and mate­rials in the home language. These programs are designed to support students arriving from a wide array of linguistic and cultural backgrounds. The goal is to help students acculturate quickly and to develop proficiency in English.

Transitional Bilingual Educational Programs (TBE) – Designed to offer some instruction in the student’s home language as they acquire English. The amount of home language instruction decreases as the students become more fluent in English. The goal of the program is to help students continue to develop their academic skills in their home language and to gradually transition students to general education once they have mastered English. This program design requires bilingual educa­tional teachers who are licensed and endorsed.

Dual-Language Education (DLE) – Offers instruction in two languages over a student’s entire educational experience, PK-12th grade. This instructional design is gaining popularity as research demonstrates its long-term aca­demic gains for students. Most dual-language programs in Illinois offer instruction in English and Spanish. These models have the goal of supporting students’ devel­opment of biliteracy and fluency in both the home language and English. School Districts such as Chicago Public Schools, School District U-46, Woodstock CUSD 200, Naperville CUSD 203, and Berwyn North SD 98 have long-established dual-language programs yielding positive long-term benefits for students. This instructional design can enroll both native English speakers and English Learners. Currently the increasing numbers of Span­ish-speaking newcomers have benefited when they can be incor­porated in Spanish Dual-Lan­guage Programs.

School leaders with successful newcomer programs described how the services were tailored to the entire school community and blended well with the existing English Learner program design. The next section describes specific scenarios highlighting the dedica­tion educators have demonstrated in supporting students coming to their doors from around the world. The Latino Policy Forum recognizes the courage and hard work of teachers and leaders across our state who have gone above and beyond to ensure success for these students.

Students from Similar Linguistic and Cultural Backgrounds

Demographics: Berwyn North SD 98 is a PK-eighth grade suburban district west of Chicago. The district has a history of receiv­ing students from Spanish-speak­ing countries (approximately 80% of students enrolled are Latino). About a third of students are clas­sified as English Learners. The district offers Dual-Language Education in English and Spanish from early childhood through sixth grade, with plans to expand into seventh and eighth grades in the coming years.

Intake process: Currently newcomers are arriving from Central and South America. These students are exhibiting signs of trauma and stress. The district has responded by setting up numerous supports and a com­prehensive intake process. When students enroll and indicate they need help and support, a parent interview and meeting is sched­uled. The family is given a tour of the school and the student is scheduled for an assessment of English proficiency. The student’s teacher is informed and the stu­dent is able to meet his/her teach­ers to reduce anxiety.

Instructional Program: Stu­dents are placed in the dual-lan­guage program where they are viewed as assets to the dual-lan­guage instructional model due to their fluency and advanced language skills in Spanish. They receive instruction in both Span­ish and English, which helps ease the transition to the United States school system and to ensure aca­demic success.

Teacher Preparation: When the district first launched dual-lan­guage, teachers received sustained professional development in meeting the instructional needs of English Learners. Teachers were offered opportunities to pursue graduate courses leading to an English as a Second Language (ESL) endorsement or training in Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol (SIOP). The district set a goal that every teacher would be equipped with instructional strate­gies designed for English Learners.

EL support teachers and bilin­gual paraprofessionals are available to provide support in the classroom as the student is integrated into the school. Quarterly check-ins are set up to monitor the student’s ongo­ing needs. Extended-year supports include a summer program that partners with arts education and local organizations to provide an enriched language development experience for students.

Wraparound Support for Families: A parent liaison is avail­able to reach out to newcomer families to provide resources and connections to social services available in the community. Par­ents are given vouchers for food, clothing, transportation to social services, and school supplies. The district uses a combination of local, state Evidence Based Funding (EBF) and federal Title III funds to support its newcomer services.

Students from a Variety of Cultures and Languages

Demographics: Skokie SD 68 enrolls about 1,700 students in PK-eighth grade with one-third of students being Muslim, one-third Jewish, and one-third Chris­tian. About 70% of the students originate from a home where a language other than English is spoken. There are 65 different languages spoken by the students and their families.

Last year the district received over 50 newcomers primarily from Afghanistan, the Philippines, and Pakistan. There were also some Russian and Ukrainian refugees who enrolled due to political turmoil in their countries. Some students experienced trauma before they left their home country as well as during their immigration experi­ence: witnessing atrocities and war crimes, having no notice that they were leaving — not being able to say goodbye, and leaving behind toys and books. Some children enrolled with disabilities and had not received services in their home country due to poverty.

Teacher Preparation: In antic­ipation of the expiration of Title 42 in the winter of 2022, the district looked for ways to reallocate resourc­es and redefine work responsibilities. Leadership strived to allocate ESL specialists, foreign language teachers, social workers, materials, and profes­sional development opportunities to form a supportive environment that would overlay the existing TPI and TBE programs in every school. The ESL specialist in each school con­ducted family interviews with new­comers and their parents to uncover student interests, previous experi­ences, and strengths and shared this information with receiving ESL/ Bilingual teachers. The ESL special­ist also provided children and their parents with a technology orienta­tion, a walking tour of campus, and the opportunity to observe classes. The ESL specialist was also available to guide, model, and demonstrate effective instructional strategies for all teachers in the building. New­comers were encouraged and guid­ed to participate in extracurricular programs and participation fees were waived.

Instructional Program: New­comer Services set goals for the stu­dents in their initial year:

Form supportive relation­ships so students feel safe, welcomed, and included in both their classes and their school community.

Facilitate shared experiences to recall previous background knowledge and create new back­ground knowledge to connect with the curriculum, create feelings of competence and belonging, and generate relevant and authentic language for use in survival English language instruction.

Extend learning into the summer through local field trips coupled with a Language Experience Approach (LEA) to instruction. Local field trips to the public library, the supermar­ket, a nearby forest preserve, a miniature golf course, and the fire department were planned to familiarize students with their new community, foster relation­ships with classmates and adults, and build survival English lan­guage skills.

A program redesign launched in 2018 incentivized general edu­cation teachers to obtain their ESL approval/endorsement. Gradually, the number of ESL teachers climbed from 9 to more than 100 over a five-year period. With so many more ESL licensed teachers throughout the dis­trict, providing appropriate instruc­tion for learners with a wide range of English proficiencies was possible and manageable, benefiting new­comers, but also other multilingual learners. A new elective course was designed at the middle school just for newcomers and the district assured that newcomers were not excluded from existing heritage foreign lan­guage courses, just because they were new to U.S. schools. Newcomers have access to these services until they demonstrate that they could self-advocate and ask for assistance, that they were engaged with their teacher and classmates during class and involved in extra-curricular activities, that they had formed friendly relationships with other children and adults in their building, and that their parents reported good adjustment behaviors at home.

Demographics: North Palos SD 117, situated in Palos Hills, is a prime illustration of a school district catering to diverse student groups. With approximately 3,360 students spanning from PK to eighth grade, the district reflects the multicultural fabric of its community. Remarkably, 70% of the student body comes from households where languages other than English are spoken. Within this demographic, 39% are classified as English Learners. The predominant languages spoken are Arabic, Polish, and Spanish. The district receives an average of 25 to 35 newcomers per year.

Intake Process: North Palos SD 117 developed a comprehensive Newcomer Intake plan which facili­tates educators and staff to recognize that newcomer students and families have specific needs that are uniquely different from the needs of other students. The Intake Plan recognizes these needs and develops proactive strategies to support the student aca­demically, socially, and emotionally. Key questions in the plan include:

  • How do we foster a welcoming environment?

  • What proactive measures can we place to support the academic instruction of the student?

  • How can we collaborate on stages of implementation throughout the year to support the student academically and socially-emotionally?

In a first-year plan there are three distinct stages:

Stage 1, District-Level Sup­ports: In the district-level support stage, which occurs shortly after student enrollment, comprehensive steps are taken to ensure students’ academic and social success. Typ­ically, within one or two days of enrollment, students undergo an English proficiency assessment. A district orientation is conducted along with a student and family interview. The purpose of the inter­views is to gather holistic informa­tion about the student’s academic, language, and social-emotional needs as well as family background. The information gained is used to support home-school connection strategies and class placement. To facilitate further understanding and collaboration, a detailed student profile narrative is crafted in order to prepare for a Student Profile meeting conducted in Stage 2.

Stage 2, School-Level Sup­ports: In Stage 2, school-level supports are tailored to ensure early student success and familiarize instructional staff with the student’s needs. The student profile meet­ing synthesizes family interview information, informing teachers on student background about responsive classroom strategies considering linguistic, cultural, and personal diversity. English Learning instructional leaders facilitate these meetings, where student stories are intentionally personalized and shared. Conversations are focused on student-specific needs and assets in order to gain a comprehensive view of the student. Student profile meetings aim to include all instruc­tional personnel who support the student, which may include social workers, paraprofessionals, teach­ers, and specialists. Stakeholders meet to discuss student needs and evaluate additional placement and proactive support based on all of the available data presented.

Proactive support may include interventions specific to newcomer foundational needs, pairing the student with a buddy that shares the same home language or has high social skills, and scaffolds to support the level of English proficiency.

Stage 3, Ongoing Monitor­ing and Support: The goal of the ongoing monitoring and support stage is to build a strong sense of collaboration with all stakeholders as they work to support the student. Ongoing student monitoring usu­ally continues within the first three months of school.

The English Learning instruc­tional leader can provide peer sup­port to teachers and other staff to help them interact with ELs in new and meaningful ways. Professional learning community teams mon­itor student data and the student’s accommodation plan to guide instruction to ensure student growth and achievement. This stage also involves a family and student check-in process. Parent liaisons proactively reach out to families to assess their needs and provide necessary support. Teachers and/or instructional leaders perform a student check-in to mon­itor the student’s acclimation to the school environment.

This steady system and ongo­ing efforts support students from diverse cultural and linguistic back­grounds, ensuring an inclusive and enriching educational experience for all.

Students Coming from Similar Linguistic and Cultural Backgrounds and Students Coming From Many Low-Incidence Languages And Cultures

Both School District U-46 and Moline-Coal Valley School District 40 have had established programs for English learners from Spanish-speak­ing countries. Each of these districts has implemented dual-language instruction for the Spanish-speaking population. In recent years the dis­tricts began to receive an increasing number of students from countries where languages other than Spanish are spoken.

Demographics: Moline-Coal Valley SD 40 is in the Northwest region of Illinois along Mississippi bordering Iowa. It is a diverse com­munity that has grown rapidly in the last decade. There has been a long­standing Latino community due to railroad projects, and the community hosts a World Relief Hub, which was developed to serve the Bosnian refu­gee population in the 1990s.

More recently the district began receiving students from Africa, Central America, Afghanistan, and Myanmar, and refugees from Malay­sia. The district enrollment is approx­imately 16% English Learners. Former ELs, those who have gained English proficiency, comprise 25% of 26 • Illinois School Board Journal

the district enrollment. The district now has 200 newcomers, about 50 per year with the most significant growth coming from Afghanistan.

Intake process: The typical process for a newcomer entering the district is that a World Relief case­worker accompanies the student and provides support during the registration process. The EL Direc­tor meets with families to assess their educational background, verify birthdates, and to support the placement process. Then the EL Director shares info with building staff and provides a building tour with family. Interpreters also partic­ipate in this process.

Instructional supports: The staff pairs the newcomer with other students who share the same language or a kind and outgoing student who can be helpful. The district developed a newcomer section of the building where newcomers spend four out of sev­en periods per day with a certified ESL teacher where they receive math and science instruction. Blended learning was used for English Language Arts.

Wraparound supports: World Relief helps with social-emotional needs of students and provides critical mental health supports for students and families. If there is trauma, World Relief aligns the appropriate resources for the family.

Staff at the school sites are also supportive. The high school teachers created a free resource room with clothing, household items, etc. Parents and students can gain access to gently used items for free during their parent/ teacher conferences.

Teacher preparation: The district is actively communicating district-wide about how the EL population is growing and has partnered with Western Illinois University to provide an option for teachers to go back to earn their ESL endorsement. This strategy has really helped at the middle and high school levels. SD 40 purchases courses from West­ern Illinois University with Title I funds. Just about every building now has an ESL-endorsed teacher and they can place newcomers in those buildings.

Demographics: School Dis­trict U-46 (Elgin) is northwest of Chicago and is the second-largest district in Illinois, serving 11 communities. The district imple­mented a Family Welcome Center which conducts all English lan­guage proficiency screening. Last year alone approximately 65% of students indicated that they came from homes where a language other than English was spoken in the home. Many of these students are designated English Learners; 87% of the district’s English Learners were born in the United States. The district also enrolled 700 newcomers last year from Venezuela, Colombia, Mexico, and some from Ukraine. The majority were Spanish-speaking and ranged in age.

Intake process: U-46 has an intake process that begins in the Welcome Center. If students speak a language other than English at home, an English pro­ficiency assessment is conducted. A parent conference is sched­uled and parents are informed of the options for instructional programs. Parents are also provid­ed a folder containing informa­tion about community agencies with support services. The district also offers parent support sessions.

In the same building as the Family Welcome Center, you will find “Project Access in Elgin” which serves the district’s homeless students. If newcomer families are living with others, they are referred to Project Access where they can receive services available through McKinney-Vento, such as access to critical services for food, housing, and other necessities. Project Access also provides medical support for vaccinations and physicals and fam­ilies receive support to apply for a medical card. The district also has mobile clinics that come to Proj­ect Access to help students receive immunizations. In addition, staff provide various social-emotional supports. Last year 1,600 students were eligible for Project Access.

The district also receives unac­companied minors and has created specialized supports for housing and academic support through Project Access. These students qualify as homeless and have been paired with programs to ensure high school graduation. In addi­tion, several trade organizations have taken the students on and have given them apprenticeships where they can learn career-building skills and certifications.

Instructional design: New­comer placement is based on the student’s home language. Span­ish speakers are recommended for dual-language as the district offers the program from Early Childhood through grade 12. The dual-language programs are located throughout the district and the instruction in Spanish helps students integrate well into the program.

All other language groups are referred to a center offering a Tran­sitional Program of Instruction with ESL instruction. There is a dedicat­ed elementary school for the TPI program where support services are concentrated. All middle schools offer dual-language and also have ESL classes. Two of the district high schools offer ESL courses.

Teacher preparation: The district launched a U-46 guide for staff, which outlines guidelines for academics, post-secondary resourc­es, community resources, ideas on navigating the U.S. school system, and tips for social-emotional health. A specialized version of the guide was created for the Ukrainian pop­ulation so staff could learn ways to communicate with and best support the families. The guide mentions specific ways in which the students may have suffered trauma. The dis­trict was also able to recruit and hire a licensed teacher who speaks both Russian and Ukrainian.

Wraparound supports: The community came together to sup­port families with essential items. Parents of newcomers are invited to attend specific workshops fea­turing motivational speakers and social-emotional issues. The district has plans to launch a parent support group where established newcomer parents can mentor those who are newly arrived.

Educators can Make a Differ­ence: Leaders from across the state were proud of the way in which their communities and staffs stepped up to the challenge of serving the new­comer population. The students’ resiliency and curiosity about the U.S. is inspirational. True educa­tional change happened in these school districts as teachers began to work closely with these students.

Amazing stories of unaccompa­nied youth graduating from high school and benefiting from housing programs and the right academic supports gave testimony to how caring educators can truly make a difference. One leader spoke of a newcomer graduating from the district to receive a scholarship to the University of Chicago. Other teachers mentioned scholarships and students starting their own businesses.

As one school leader put it, “Extend your hand, your heart, and your empathy. Newcomers are a true joy.”

Alaynah Garibay, M.Ed., is a Senior Consultant for the Latino Policy Forum. Rebecca Vonderlack-Navarro, Ph.D., is the Director of Education Policy and Research at the Latino Policy Forum. Additional contributions to this article come from Barbara Marler, Ed.D., Educational Consultant and Strategic Advisor and Director of EL Services for Skokie SD 68 (recently retired); Francela Lopez, Director of Language Learners, Berwyn North SD 98; Shadia Salem, Assistant Superintendent of English Learning, North Palos SD 117; Elizabeth Perkins, Coordinator for English Learners, Moline Coal Valley SD 40; Griselda Pirtle, Director of Multilingual and Multicultural Education, School District U-46 (Elgin). Resources for this article can be accessed via www.iasb.com/journal.