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Ayanna Cooper finds out what newcomer students really need

“Respect is just a minimum” ~ Lauryn Hill

As part of a recent project, I’ve had the opportunity to support educators at ENLACE (Engaging Newcomers in Language and Content Education) a high school program for newcomers in Lawrence, Massachusetts. Serving approximately 180 students with a teaching staff of 23, Principal Jeannette Jiménez is leading the charge to support ENLACE students with their academic and socio-emotional needs. ENLACE, which is featured in Lander’s new book, Making Americans; Stories of Historic Struggles, New Ideas, and Inspiration in Immigrant Education (2023), serves students from multiple countries including the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Ecuador, Honduras, Peru, and Colombia. Spanish is the most common home language spoken by students followed indigenous languages from Central and South America, Mam, Quechua, and Kaqchikel.

The U.S. Department of Education defines newcomers as, “any foreign-born students and their families who have recently arrived in the United States” (OELA, p.8). The Massachusetts Department of Education (DESE, Oct. 2022) further explains,

While newcomer students arrive in U.S. schools from diverse backgrounds and bring a wide range of experiences, they often share the common challenges of adjusting to a new home, navigating a new language and culture, and learning how to function effectively in a school environment that may be very different from their prior school experience.

In an effort to include more student voices as part of plans for the FY 2023-24, Jiménez conducted focus groups with students centered around five questions:

  1.  What are the similarities and differences between your former and current schooling?
  2.  How have you experienced transitioning to school in the U.S?
  3. What values are important to you?
  4. What type of learning community do you want to be a part of?
  5. What should learning look like? What do you want to learn?

Prior Schooling

Students being able to share their prior schooling experience is helpful for educators who work with, teach and advocate for them but who may not have much context about education systems outside of the U.S. It was insightful to first acknowledge how things were before focusing on how they are now and what they’d like to happen as part of their secondary school experience.

In regard to what students named as “worked well” as part of schooling in their countries of origin​ included:

  • Better food served at lunch
  • Recess was 1.5 hours (1 hour for lunch, two 15 minutes breaks)
  • Monthly field trips
  • Fun days (e.g., activities, dancing, arts and crafts)
  • Fundraising activities.
  • The schools sold pastelitos
  • Students could order food from the bodega during their 1-hour lunch

Transitioning to U.S. Schools

Newcomers in Lawrence have a choice to attend the traditional high school or to attend ENLACE, which is a short-term transitional program, designed to support their transition into general education. There are a number of reasons why a student may decide to attend one program over the other. Regardless of what they choose, for secondary students becoming literate in a new language is not without challenges. Some common themes related to their experiences transitioning to school in the U.S. included:

  • The language barrier was frustrating
  • Getting used to new rules and expectations was difficult
  • Bullying and discrimination, starting school made things better as they related to other students.
  • Couldn’t communicate well with other people, in another school because their classmates spoke English
  • The transition to ENLACE went well; many people helped them and made them feel comfortable speaking English without fear

Values and Learning Community

In addition to students sharing their past experiences with school, the focus groups also spent time discussing what students found important, valued, and wanted from their learning community. Table I. provides an excerpt of some of what ENLACE students listed. If you were able to ask students, especially secondary newcomers, similar questions to those Principal Jiménez asked, what do you think you’d hear? What trends do you notice from these responses? What additional questions would you ask students? What types of learning experiences do students want? More importantly, how can we be sure to offer them those experiences?

Table I. Values and Learning Community Characteristics

ValuesLearning Community Characteristics
  Respect at all times between teachers and students
Hard work
Patience Community    
How to be your own boss since universities teach their students how to work
More English, let us figure it out. Frustration is good but it’s how we learn
Fluid learning, some teachers want to saturate our learning but I think it should be fluid
Individual work rather than group work
Comprehensive and fun learning
More practice in bio class.
Not just learn about theories
Important that we have other experiences outside of the classroom —go to the park or other environments
Mixed classes, not in cohorts with the same student in every class
More mental health support to treat anxiety, depression, trauma  

Dr. Hartwick serves as the district’s director of Multilingual Learner Education. She praises the intentional approach to include ENLACE students in decision making by stating,

“What has impressed me about the process of gathering information from stakeholders about programmatic decision-making is the extent to which ENLACE goes to engage student voices in authentic discussion and actual decision-making. ENLACE has a history of prioritizing student agency and voice. This is critical because, after all, our newcomers are our largest stakeholder group and they are living this educational experience! It’s their future that is at stake. They should have a say in how they expect their education to bring them forward to meet their goals in life.”

Some of what students listed is similar to Shea’s recommendations for Creating Welcoming Classrooms (March, 2022). The need for socio-emotional support is more pressing than ever.

Including student voice must become a regular practice if we are going to truly support student confidence, critical thinking and agency. What can we as educators learn from interviewing students, their families and stakeholders? How can we embed more opportunities to listen, learn, and act into our going plans to improve student outcomes. Centering on student voice should not be optional but instead the expectation. 

Resources for supporting newcomers:

Institute of Educational Sciences

Welcoming, Registering, and Supporting Newcomer Students: A Toolkit for Educators of Immigrant and Refugee Students in Secondary Schools

Office of English Language Acquisition (OELA) ​​ English Learners In Secondary Schools: Trajectories, Transitions, And Promising Practices – Part 1


Office of English Language Acquisition (OELA) ​​ English Learners In Secondary Schools: Trajectories, Transitions, And Promising Practices – Part 11


Shea, K. (2022). Creating Welcoming Classrooms. Language Magazine . Retrieved from

(n.a) Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, (October, 2022) Enrolling and Supporting Newcomer Students in Massachusetts Schools & Districts, Frequently Asked Questions

United States Department of Education, (2016). Newcomer Tool Kit Retrieved from

Ayanna Cooper, EdD, is the Pass the Mic series editor, and owner of A. Cooper Consulting. She is the author of And Justice for ELs: A Leader’s Guide to Creating and Sustaining Equitable Schools (Corwin) and is currently a Massachusetts Education Policy Fellow at The Rennie Center in Boston (2022-2023).

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