The number of migrant students in Massachusetts public high schools has tripled over the last 15 years, but many of them left without a diploma or fluency in English, according to a report released Thursday that questions whether schools are prepared for a new onslaught of students.
High schools registered a record number 5,600 migrant students in 2022, the last year of the period examined in “Rising Numbers, Unmet Needs: Immigrant Newcomers in Massachusetts High Schools” by the Annenberg Institute at Brown University.
Half of new migrants last year registered at just 14 high schools, and they comprised 10 percent or more of the student populations at seven schools: Boston International, Lynn Classical, Lynn English, East Boston High, Chelsea High, Framingham High, and Marlborough High. Many lack English fluency and have had extended disruptions in learning before enrolling here.
The report’s researchers anticipate high schools in the state could set a record again this school year, given the ongoing wave of migrants. That surge has stretched emergency shelters to a breaking point and is increasingly straining public schools.
The increases add to the challenges Massachusetts schools have faced for years with English learners, who have among the lowest achievement levels of students statewide. The Annenberg report makes painstakingly clear just how dismal that record has been and the urgency for change.
Fewer than a quarter of migrant students learned how to speak, read, or write well enough in English to exit specialized English learner programs during their time in high school, according to the report. One in five high school newcomers dropped out. And slightly more than one-third of the migrant students have enrolled in college, compared to 72 percent of other Massachusetts high school students.
The outcomes could be better if schools provide migrant students with more support, said Ann Mantil, one of the report’s authors, noting that migrant students arrive with a lot of potential and drive, and their linguistic diversity is valuable in the labor market.
“Their presence in the state in these growing numbers is a real opportunity,” Mantil said. ”Newcomers have so much to contribute to the state’s communities and its economy going forward.”
The disappointing academic outcomes reflect a multitude of challenges, the report noted. Migrant students who enroll in high school have the shortest time span to gain fluency in English before graduating and consequently struggle to keep up with their academic classes. In most cases, they also receive little instruction in academic subjects in their native languages, even though changes in state law a few years ago afford districts with more opportunity to do so.
Beyond the classroom, many migrant students are grappling with trauma they experienced during their journeys to the United States or in their homelands, while also working jobs to help support their families. A lack of permanent housing also causes students to move frequently, creating further disruptions when they transfer schools.
Massachusetts programs for English learners were thrown into disarray after voters in 2002 approved a ballot question that largely required school districts to teach students only in English. Advocates for immigrant students said the inability of districts to teach students subjects in their native language while they learned how to speak and write in English caused many to flounder and drop out.
US civil rights investigators with the Justice and Education departments have conducted reviews in several districts that uncovered a number of violations, including failing to properly identify students for English learner programs, failing to place them in the correct programs, or not communicating with parents in their native language. Boston and New Bedford are operating under settlement agreements with the Justice Department to resolve violations.
In an effort to improve the trajectory of English learners, the Legislature and former governor Charlie Baker approved changes to state law in 2017 that give districts more flexibility to teach students in their native language.
Migrant students in high school could benefit the most from bilingual education because of the limited amount of time they have to graduate, said Miren Uriarte, professor emeritus in human services at the University of Massachusetts Boston and founding director of the Mauricio Gastón Institute for Latino Community Development and Public Policy.
“Districts have to accept that these students are in a vulnerable situation and need support in their own language to perform,” said Uriarte, a former Boston School Committee member who has extensively researched the outcomes of English learners in Massachusetts.
The state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education said it is committed to helping districts support newcomers by sharing best practices and updating guidance. But the department noted that acquiring English proficiency can take five to seven years.
The more recent arrivals of migrant students largely speak either Spanish or Portuguese and came from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, or Brazil, according to the report. In 2008, fewer than half of newcomers spoke those two languages.
The demographics of high school migrants also have shifted in other ways: They are more likely to be male and their proficiency in English is lower than previous waves of migrant students.
The decrease in migrant students who speak English could be partly attributed to huge disruptions in schooling in their home countries during the pandemic, said Gabrielle Oliveira, an associate professor of education and Brazil studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. For instance, she noted Brazil was one of the last countries to reopen its school buildings.
Oliveira, whose research focuses on immigration and mobility, said other shifts have occurred within migrant populations from Brazil and Central America. Before the pandemic, migrants were more commonly from urban areas but now people from rural regions are leaving in greater numbers and some speak languages other than Spanish or English.
New Bedford, for instance, was flagged by the Justice Department for incorrectly assuming all Central American families speak Spanish. Some families, for instance, speak K’iche’, an Indigenous Mayan language. As part of its DOJ settlement agreement, New Bedford now has to implement measures to correctly identify the languages of new arrivals so school officials can effectively communicate with them.
The Annenberg report should bring greater urgency to finding better ways to help newcomers adjust and do well, said Oliveira, noting many educators are seeking greater guidance and are trying to revamp instruction whenever newcomers arrive.
“A lot of these schools don’t have many professional educators who speak Portuguese, Spanish, Haitian Creole, or another language and that is a real barrier to understand when a 13-, 14-, or 15-year-old is coming in with some information or feelings that they need to work out,” she said. “If you always need a translator or interpreter, it creates this distance between a teacher, a school administrator, and the student.”