Newcomers to the U.S. Are Among the Fastest-Growing Population in Massachusetts High Schools

Even before a recent surge in migration to the state, Massachusetts public schools were struggling to accommodate a growing and changing population of newcomers.

For many of those high school students, progress toward English proficiency has been slow and successful outcomes are disproportionately rare, according to a new report released Thursday by the Annenberg Institute at Brown University.

Ann Mantil, lead author of the report, said it attempts to provide a desperately needed window into one of the state’s fastest-growing and most complex student populations. “Immigrants are talked about as if they were one group,” she said. “We’ve tried to show how much variation there is.”

Recognizing that diversity, the report also contains troubling findings about the academic performance of those students, including that they made up 32% of students who failed one or more sections of the 10th grade MCAS. In 2021, almost 20% of newcomers dropped out of secondary school, the report adds.

Immigrant students called “newcomers” are defined as students from other countries or territories who are still learning English and are still in their first year of education in the United States.

The Brown University report found that the number of newcomers enrolling in Massachusetts high schools each year has nearly tripled in 14 years: from about 2,000 in 2008 to 5,600 in 2022.

Many of the older newcomers, in particular, arrive in the Bay State after a disrupted formal education and often carrying the weight of trauma.

“They are a very dynamic population,” Mantil said. But he acknowledged that their educational outcomes are relatively poor and, by some measures, getting worse.

The college enrollment rate of newcomer students (consistently below the state average) has fallen even further behind: from about 50% for the class of 2011 to just over 30% for those graduating eight years later. Pandemic-related disruptions likely influenced that decline.

Where the newcomers come from

The report also sheds light on the regions and languages ​​that are increasingly represented in the state’s school system. In 2008, languages ​​such as Cape Verdean and Haitian Creole were relatively more prevalent, as was immigration from Puerto Rico. But that has changed lately.

Central America’s Northern Triangle – which includes Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador – and Brazil account for much of the recent growth, Mantil said. And now, 84% of high school newcomers speak Spanish or Portuguese.

That shift in national origins has been accompanied by increasing rates of students arriving with “very low” English language proficiency, according to the report. The newcomers also tend to be older, on average, than typical ninth graders, with more than half being between 16 and 18 years old.

Meanwhile, migration from Haiti, Cape Verde and elsewhere continues, if only as a relatively small part of the total.

“It’s really important that individual districts, and the community as a whole, are really attentive to changes in the newcomer population and respond to the needs of those who are arriving right now,” Mantil said.

Where newcomers are settling in Massachusetts

The report found that many newly arrived students and their families join existing immigrant enclaves in Boston and, increasingly, go to smaller, more affordable cities outside of Boston, including Lynn and Lawrence, Framingham and Brockton.

In 2022, about half of the state’s newcomers attended one of 14 public high schools, notably Lynn English High and Lynn Classical High, where they accounted for 15% of total enrollment in 2022, and Framingham High.

But that leaves the other half of the newcomers more dispersed in other parts of the state.

By 2022, 95 Massachusetts school districts will enroll at least five newcomers in their high schools, a number that Mantil said is likely to be even higher this fall, given the latest uptick in migration.

“That’s a real change,” he said. “There are several districts that have very limited experience, and may not have bilingual staff, (but) that are equally responsible for educating newcomers who enroll.”

Mantil and his co-authors found that the multidimensional diversity of newcomers tends to influence their educational outcomes. Women in the cohort are “significantly more likely” to graduate from high school and enroll in college than their male counterparts., the report said.

And while there are still relatively high rates of college enrollment for immigrants from Haiti and the Dominican Republic, students from the two fastest-growing regions represented – the Northern Triangle and Brazil – enrolled at much lower rates.

Mantil again emphasized that the diversity of newcomers will require different responses from educators across the state. As places like Framingham adapt to a growing Brazilian population, cities like Quincy must look to adapt to “a lot of different languages.”

“We hope that having some understanding of who is in each district will help the state provide a more tailored and personalized approach,” Mantil said.

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