Implementing education policy and practice with immigrant and english language learners in mind: an ethnographic study of an urban new york city high school

Larson, Colleen L; Miranda, Chandler (2018). 'Implementing Education Policy and Practice with Immigrant and English Language Learners in Mind: An Ethnographic Study of An Urban New York City High School' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Buenos Aires, Argentina 2018.



Social justice researchers argue that the purpose of education for children and youth living in low wealth communities is to enhance their real freedoms and opportunities to achieve, not just in school, but in life (Larson, 2013; Greene, 1998). However, current utilitarian reform efforts in education across the globe, often focus on academic achievement alone and fail to identify or address the many obstacles that severely undermine children’s abilities to focus on and benefit from education. In this paper, we argue that overly narrow achievement policies and practices are poorly aligned with the learning and human support needs of all children, however, they are particularly detrimental to the education and life chances of poor and recently arrived immigrant populations, often reducing rather than enhancing their real opportunities to learn and achieve.

Nussbaum (2000) argues that If we are to better meet the needs of children and youth who benefit least from the form of education we currently provide, we must recognize the need for a more human and humanizing approach to education, assessment, and reform. Sen asserts that rather than focusing on achievement alone, policy makers must examine people’s actual freedoms or opportunities to achieve (Sen, 2009; 1999; 1992). Researchers and policy makers ought to recognize that not all children are similarly free to focus on education or achievement.  Further, children encounter vast disparities in their real opportunities to learn due to economic, social and emotional obstacles in their lives. Therefore, if educators and policy makers are to improve educational outcomes for economically poor, immigrant youth, we must more appropriately correct our unwavering focus on achievement with a greater recognition of and attention to the social, economic, and political disparities that undermine children’s freedoms and opportunities to achieve.

In this paper, we portray the powerful findings of an in-depth ethnographic study of a high school dedicated to educating recently arrived immigrant teenagers in New York City.  Based on the work of Nussbaum and Sen, we asked: How does this school seek to increase educational opportunity for the newly arrived and English learning population that they serve? The purpose of this study was to explore how this school creates, or impedes, their students’ opportunities to succeed as immigrant youth in a new country. How do the policies, norms and everyday practices of administrators and teachers in this school enhance their students’ real opportunities to learn, achieve, and succeed in school and in their broader communities? 

The challenges of educating new immigrants who do not speak English in a major urban city like NYC, poses difficulties for educators who must often find their ways around and out of education policies that ill-serve their students.  Through this study, we found that this highly successful school fully embraced a capabilities approach to supporting, mentoring, educating and advocating for their students. These educators sought to expand their students’ freedoms to learn by establishing an appropriate and mindful balance between focusing on achievement and on child well being. We also found that these educators were wholly dedicated to providing children and families with access to vital resources like medical care, mental health care, legal aid, access to technology, safe recreational spaces. Finally, these educators offered their students a developmentally/educationally appropriate and high quality education. 

This school's more human approach to education directly responded to the specific human needs of these recently arrived immigrant students who were also English language learners. Through the stories captured in this highly successful high school, we can see the important role that schools can play in enhancing educational opportunity, social inclusion and feelings of belonging and connection-- --when the educational processes and policies are designed with the needs of recent immigrants and English language learners in mind. 

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