Even before a recent surge in migration to the state, Massachusetts public schools were struggling to accommodate a growing, changing population of new arrivals.
For many of those students in high school, progress toward English proficiency has been slow and successful outcomes are disproportionately rare, according to a new report published Thursday by the Annenberg Institute at Brown University.
Ann Mantil, the report’s lead author, said it tries to offer an urgently needed window into one of the state’s fastest-growing and most complex student populations. “Migrants are talked about like they’re one group,” she said. “We’ve tried to show how much variation there is.”
As it acknowledges that diversity, the report also contains worrying findings on those students’ academic performance, including that they made up 32% of the students who failed to pass one or more sections of the 10th grade MCAS. In 2021, nearly 20% of newcomers dropped out of high school, the report added.
The migrant students referred to as “newcomers” are defined as students from other countries or territories who are still learning English and still in their first year of American schooling.
The Brown University report found that the number of newcomers enrolling each year in Massachusetts’ high schools has nearly tripled in 14 years: from around 2,000 in 2008 to 5,600 in 2022.
Many of the older newcomers, in particular, arrive in the Bay State after disrupted formal schooling — and often bearing the weight of trauma.
“They’re this very dynamic population,” said Mantil. But she acknowledged their education outcomes are relatively poor – and getting worse, by some metrics.
The rate of college enrollment for newcomer students — consistently below the state average — has fallen further behind: from around 50% for the class of 2011 to just over 30% for those graduating eight years later. Pandemic-related disruptions likely played a role in that decline.
Where 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 like Cape Verdean and Haitian Creole were relatively more prevalent, as was in-migration from Puerto Rico. But that’s changed of late.
The Northern Triangle in Central America — which includes Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador — and Brazil account for a lot of the recent growth, Mantil said. And now, 84% of high school newcomers speak Spanish or Portuguese.
That shift in national backgrounds has been accompanied by rising rates of students arriving with “very low” English-language proficiency, the report said. Newcomers also tend to be older, on average, than typical ninth graders, with over half between 16 and 18 years old.
Meanwhile, migration from Haiti, Cape Verde and other locations continues, if only as a relatively smaller part of the whole.
“It’s really important for individual districts, and the commonwealth as a whole, to be really attentive to shifts in the newcomer population — and responsive to needs of those arriving right now,” Mantil said.
Where newcomers are settling in Massachusetts
The report found that many newcomer students and their families join existing immigrant enclaves in Boston, and increasingly, go to smaller and more affordable cities outside it, including Lynn, Lawrence, Framingham and Brockton.
In 2022, roughly half of the state’s newcomers attended one of 14 public high schools, most notably Lynn English High and Lynn Classical High — where they made up 15% of overall enrollment in 2022 — and Framingham High.
But that leaves the other half of newcomers distributed more sparsely across other parts of the state.
By 2022, 95 Massachusetts school districts enrolled at least five newcomers in their high schools — a number that Mantil said is likely even higher this fall, due to the latest uptick in migration.
“That’s a real change,” she said. “There’s a number of districts that have very limited experience, and maybe no bilingual staff, [but] who are equally responsible for educating the newcomers that enroll.”
Mantil and her co-authors found that newcomers’ multidimensional diversity tends to play a role in their education outcomes. Female members of the cohort are “much 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 migrants from Haiti and the Dominican Republic, students from the two fastest-growing represented regions — the Northern Triangle and Brazil — enrolled at much lower rates.
Mantil again stressed that the diversity of newcomers will require different responses from educators statewide. While places like Framingham adapt to a growing Brazilian population, cities like Quincy must seek to accommodate “a whole lot of different languages.”
“We hope that having some understanding of who’s in each district will help the state provide a more customized, tailored approach,” Mantil said.