Mass Immigration Driving School Segregation

By John Wahala on August 10, 2017

In her recent Atlantic piece, Natalie Gross examines a growing trend in public school efforts to educate immigrants: segregated schools. An organization called the Internationals Network is establishing schools exclusively for students who have been in the country four years or less and score in the bottom quartile on English-language tests. The effort began in New York City and has expanded to immigrant-heavy areas across the country. Since 2012, five international high schools and one middle school have opened in the D.C. area and there are currently 27 such schools in operation nationwide, some of which operate on the campus of other public institutions.

The schools emphasize language development throughout the curriculum. This approach, which differs from the segmented instruction of most public schools, appears to yield impressive results. As Gross points out, English-language learners have the second lowest graduation rate after students with disabilities. But those in Network schools have fared much better. For example, in New York City, 74 percent of last year's Network graduates finished in four years compared to 31 percent of their non-network peers. Their six-year graduation rate was also significantly higher: 78 percent versus 49 percent.

The success of the Internationals Network has encouraged the creation of similar, unaffiliated schools in various districts across the country. As one might expect, this trend has created controversy. A common complaint is that the local jurisdiction pays the bulk of the school's operating expenses. Seed money has come from private foundations, but the schools are approved and largely sustained by the public school system. Typically these schools are established in low-income areas that are already struggling for resources. The diversion of funds to separate and exclusive institutions is all too familiar to many black Americans, who have drawn parallels to the segregated past.

But proponents of immigrant schools counter that English learners are segregated regardless. In her piece, Gross links to an article that quotes academic Odis Johnson: "So now we're at a situation where we can continue down a path towards educational isolation, which is something that Latino students feel when they're in classrooms where they can't interact or fully engage with the instruction, where the teachers do not have the skills necessary to meet their educational needs or facilitate learning, and that has to be one of the most pernicious forms of segregation where you are actually in the context but totally isolated and unable to benefit from all that's going around."

The isolation felt by immigrants has been well documented. Researchers have found that it takes the average person several years to become fluent in English. One study concluded that an English learner in California has less than a 40 percent chance to be proficient after 10 years of schooling in the United States. Add the stress of adapting to a new culture and it is no surprise that these students are alienated. Given the option, many have chosen to be with their international peers who share common experiences and struggles. A young woman interviewed by Gross, who attends the immigrant school on the Cardozo campus in D.C., explains that the teachers and students of the mainstream high school treat the newcomers differently and that the groups rarely mingle. She has found a new family in the immigrant school.

That sense of solidarity facilitates the learning process. But it also cements immigrant segregation from the rest of the student body. As Gross points out, there is no plan to transition students out of the immigrant schools; it is up to them whether they stay or go. Most, like the young woman featured in the Atlantic article, will choose a nurturing environment alongside their international peers. This will likely improve their academics, but will it make them better American citizens?

The growth of immigrant schools challenges the traditional goal of an integrated society. An initial reason for the establishment of public schools in the 19th century was to assimilate immigrants into an American national identity. Part of this integration was forming relationships with American peers. This, however, has been occurring with less and less frequency in our current era of mass immigration. Researchers have described the present state of public schools as being "re-segregated across racial/ethnic, linguistic, and economic divisions." Academic Gary Orfield, whom Gross quotes in her article, has found that more than three-quarters of Hispanic students attend majority-minority schools. Nearly 40 percent of Hispanics attend schools that are 90-100 percent minority.

In that regard, immigrant schools may not be increasing segregation all that much. But they are institutionalizing it. By definition, the student bodies at these institutions are international. Spanish speakers are joined by smaller groups of students who speak close to 100 different languages. Everyone is encouraged to use their native tongues in the learning process. And unlike private institutions that have specialized curriculums, immigrant schools have the full endorsement of the state. It is an endorsement that runs contrary to a body of research that finds the effects of segregation to be harmful. For his part, Orfield opposes keeping English learners in separate environments for too long.

What remains largely unsaid is that this whole debate is a result of mass immigration. Immigrant schools were established in areas of heavy immigrant settlement, where overwhelmed public schools were unable to meet the needs of newcomers. The Internationals Network is growing because there is a growing need to provide quality, or even adequate, educational opportunities to millions of English learners who are languishing in mainstream public schools and whose special needs create disruptions for the other students. For those who favor a more traditional education model, the solution is to reduce immigration to a level that can be better managed by an integrated approach. The alternative is increased segregation.