Email Status

Volume 24, Number 2
March/April 2008

Educating Teenage Immigrants

High schools experiment with ways to group new English-language learners


(Internationals Network for Public Schools)

As the nation debates immigration policy, educators in communities across the country are seeking ways to meet the needs of a rapidly changing school-age population. Students born abroad or to immigrant parents now make up the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. student population. In 1970, immigrant youngsters represented 6 percent of the school-age population; by 2010 they are expected to make up 25 percent. About one-quarter of these students have limited English proficiency, and they are entering school at a time when federal and state standards for judging their success keep rising.

The challenges of educating immigrant learners are particularly acute at the high school level. Experts of all stripes—academics, principals, and classroom teachers—say an immigrant student’s biggest hurdle is becoming proficient enough in academic English to graduate from high school and, ideally, get a college degree. The key obstacle is time. According to New York University professor Marcelo Suárez-Orozco, it takes five to seven years under optimal conditions for a non-English-speaking student to achieve the academic language skills of his or her native-born peers. Immigrant teens must master high school literature, math, science, and social studies, as well as the English language itself, and states are increasingly requiring that they do it in a four-year period.

To meet the needs of immigrant students, schools across the country have put a wide range of programs in place. While the most common approach is still to put students in ESL classes according to their English-language abilities, many schools are experimenting with different ways of grouping students to accelerate and support their learning. Some are exploring heterogeneous grouping, or mixing students who have varying levels of English proficiency. Others offer a combination of leveled groups, sheltered classes, and differentiated instruction within general education classrooms. From cities like New York and Houston—longstanding destinations for immigrants—to districts like Wake County, N.C., which are experiencing an unprecedented influx of newcomers, educators are seeking ways to incorporate immigrant learners into even their most challenging high school programs.

This is an excerpt from the Harvard Education Letter. Subscribers can click here to continue reading this article.


For Further Information

For Further Information

J. Batalova, M. Fix, and J. Murray. “Measures of Change; the Demography and Literacy of Adolescent English Learners—A Report to the Carnegie Corporation of New York.” Washington, DC: Migration Policy Institute, 2007. Available online at

R. Fry. “The Changing Racial and Ethnic Composition of U.S. Public Schools.” Pew Hispanic Center, Washington, DC, August 30, 2007. Available online at

D. J. Hernandez, N.A. Denton, and S.E. Macartney. “Children in America’s Newcomer Families” (2007 Research Brief Series). Child Trends & the Center for Social and Demographic Analysis, Albany: SUNY. Available online at

J. P. Smith and B. Edmonston, eds. The New Americans: Economic, Demographic and Fiscal Effects of Immigration. Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 1997. Available online at

C. Suárez-Orozco, M. Suárez Orozco, and I. Todorova. Learning a New Land: Immigrant Students in American Society. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2008.