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Ensuring Refugees and Newcomers Receive the Education They Deserve

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Immigrant and refugee students are legally entitled to the same quality of education as US born students, a standard which when met can have significant positive outcomes over the course of their lives. However, they often face a number of barriers - from immigration laws to limiting perceptions or flawed placement and support systems that prevent them from receiving the education they deserve.

We discuss this topic with Jo Napolitano, a well-known author and expert on the topic of immigrant youth who has studied the impact of a supportive vs. diminutive district on the outcomes and achievement of immigrant and refugee students. But her expertise on the topic predated her career.

Napolitano was born in Bogota, Colombia and was left at an orphanage by her birth mother just one day later. She was rarely fed and nearly starved to death before being adopted by a family from New York.Her placement saved her life. But, sadly, her new family fell apart a few years later and Napolitano was raised solely by her mother, a stay-at home parent with no college education. Once again, Napolitano was plunged back into poverty. But her mother, recognizing her academic ability, encouraged her to follow through with her education so she would never find herself in a similar bind in adulthood. It worked.

Napolitano would go on to be successful in high school, attend a top journalism school and eventually be sponsored to attend Columbia University where she wrote her book “The School I Deserve” - part one of which is appropriately titled From Colombia to Columbia in 40 Short Years.

“I feel there are no coincidences, there's nothing that happens randomly. Because I was blessed with health, it was really upon me. I have taken up that challenge, to try and represent kids coming from a similar situation and remind people of all they can do.”

This challenge is where the core of our conversation begins.

What are some flawed or limiting perceptions of immigrant and refugee students?

“I feel we often overlook, neglect and just negate their unbelievable ability and really do not see the gifts that they bring us, the gifts that they are when they come into this country. We just assume when we see someone with an incredibly impoverished start in life…it's really hard for us to relate to that person or to believe that a person who comes from such a dire circumstance could actually have a tremendous amount to offer.”

Napolitano’s own story disproves this very mistaken notion - though she came from extreme poverty, she was able to thrive in the US education system and launch a successful career. For those of us without first hand experience, we must consciously work to address any biases we may have toward students from a similar background.

Another commonly held misconception that Napolitano addressed in our conversation was the reasoning behind many schools’ and districts’ hesitancy to allocate additional support to these groups of students.

“There's a really mistaken notion in this country and probably all over the world, that if I do well by one group, I'm therefore doing poorly by another. We have a pie. It has finite slices. If I give you one, I lose. That's just really not true.”

What are some common barriers to newcomer or immigrant students receiving the full extent of education that they are legally entitled to?

Napolitano shares that immigration policies have a direct impact on our kids’ education, as is evidenced in the state of Alabama when they enacted some of the most restrictive anti-immigration legislation around 10 years ago. The law was designed to crackdown on undocumented immigrants and make the entire state inhospitable to them - and schools felt the direct results.

“You had children pulled out of school midyear. Parents were terrified and they left. You had principals and teachers who saw half their classrooms empty. It is an incredible betrayal of trust, because undocumented children have a right to attend school in this country until they age out.  But there, the trust was really broken. It was meant to send this message that, ‘we don't want you here and you need to get out.’”

This gap between the education that all students, including undocumented immigrants or refugees, are legally entitled to and the reality of the education they often receive is also often caused by a lack of training that classroom teachers may feel unable to engage students who speak little to no English. Napolitano notes that educators sometimes look to ESL teachers and believe newcomers are “their students,” which she advocates against.

“We have to get rid of the notion that it's okay to look at that child day after day, who is not participating, who's sitting silently, who clearly doesn't understand and just ignore that child and just feel that, it is not my job as a precalculus teacher, to make my material known to a child who got here an hour and a half ago from Sudan. But in fact, it is, because we are supposed to be teaching all children." Read more on what can happen when EL and Math departments collaborate.

How is “moving students through” the education system without adequate support or learning such a major missed opportunity for both them and their communities?

There are many school districts that Napolitano notes are doing a phenomenal job with younger refugees and immigrants, but one key problem is admitting older children (later teen years), particularly assessing them correctly and putting them in the best learning environment.

When newly arrived students are placed into high school classes without adequate language support, they are likely to graduate without having a true opportunity to learn and reap the benefits of the education system, which in turn robs our society of the gifts these students have to offer.

“The thing about education we have to remember is that it is finite. We have a finite period of our lives that we're eligible for a free public education. Once we put these kids out in the world, denying them that, they are set back. It's like they're in the Stone Age, with what they know and what they can do. They are in chains, after that. It is really a missed opportunity.”

Napolitano emphasizes that graduating high school is something that only happens once. The US education system can be an amazing opportunity for immigrant and refugee students to completely alter the course of their lives, but if they are “moved along” and pushed out at a premature graduation that they are truly ready for, they do not get that chance. 

“When we are determined not to serve these students, when we treat them like hot potatoes, when we push them to night school, adult education, to the fringes of the public education system because we don't want to deal with them, we are failing them. Not just failing them, we are hurting them in an irreparable way. Once we graduate these kids, we can't then put them back.”

What do you want to tell educators of immigrant and refugee children like yourself?

“Whether they were born here and they got off the Mayflower 500 and whatever years ago, or they got here an hour and a half ago, they are our children in our country. They are worth our time, our investment and our love, every single one of them. So if you know your own child has been through a difficult experience and you want other adults to be sensitive to that, think of these as your children, who have been through experiences that would make an adult crumble. Yet, they are still here and they're trying to learn. Keep that in mind with them.”

Download the full interview transcript here.

Episode resources:

Jo Napolitano spent nearly two decades reporting for The New York Times, Chicago Tribune and Newsday before winning a Spencer Education Fellowship to Columbia University in 2016 in support of her reporting on immigrant youth. Her first book, The School I Deserve: Six Young Refugees and Their Fight for Equality in America, will be published by Beacon Press in Spring 2021. She is a current Education Writers Association Fellow and a recent recipient of a grant from the Fund For Investigative Journalism.