In diverse cities like New York there is a greater chance that older immigrant youth, without the time to learn and the ability to speak fluent English, will drop out of high school. Also, discrimination; social and geographic isolation; little or no work experience; and lower levels of English proficiency make it even more difficult for older immigrant youth to find employment—thus resulting in disconnection. Immigrants comprise 30% of high school drop-outs in the Unites States. In Canada—the location of the Pathways to Success: Immigrant Youth at High School research project—studies on immigrant youth show that alarmingly high numbers, 46% to 74% in some areas, do not complete high school.
The Pathways to Success research project was a partnership between the Center for Research and Education in Human Services (CREHS) and Wilfrid Laurier University and was conducted in 2006. The Waterloo region of Canada was used as a case study to explore factors that can maximize social and academic accomplishment in immigrant youth attending high school. The project builds on past research by providing in-depth insights into the immigrant youth experience in high school—their challenges, desires, and attitudes to their situation— in order to offer concrete “pathways of success” rooted in the experiences of the immigrant students themselves. The study was centered on youth aged 16 to 20 who had been living in Canada at most five years. The surveyed students where from four ethno-cultural backgrounds: Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan; Northeast Africa; Spanish-speaking Latin America; and the former Yugoslavia.
The project emerged from the increasing concerns about the standing of immigrant youth when they arrive in Canada because the drop-out rates have created challenges for school boards, educators, and communities. Waterloo was an ideal location because it is a mid-sized urban community with a high immigrant population. The researchers’ hope is that their work can be applicable to other communities.
The questions that guided this study were:
- What factors help and hinder positive social and academic outcomes for immigrant youth in high school?
- What enables them to succeed in school?
- What prevents them from succeeding in school?
- What contributes to the desire to either stay in school or leave?
- What are the current promising practices or success stories?
- What role should peers, families, educational institutions, and the community-at-large play in facilitating positive academic and social outcomes for immigrant youth in school?
- What policy instruments and program models within the school system would maximize positive academic and social outcomes for immigrant youth in school?
Methods of gathering information:
- Ten key informant interviews with school board trustees/senior administrators, student leaders, parents serving on the Parent Council, ESL teacher, and other community leaders: The purpose of these interviews was to address the guiding questions from different perspectives.
- Eight focus groups with immigrant youth, parents of the immigrant youth, and high school teachers: The information gathered in the key informant interviews helped to frame further questions to ask the focus group participants.
- Ten in-depth individual interviews with immigrant youth.
- A community forum attended by approximately 160 participants including youth, teachers, service providers, government representatives, families, and other interested citizens: The purpose of this was to present the study’s findings and to mobilize the community in the development of a set of strategies to ensure greater success of immigrant youth in high schools.
The results of this study were organized under sections that emerged from the data: the first impression immigrant youth have once arriving in Canada; what enables immigrant youth to have positive experiences in school; and what factors hinder positive experiences.
1. First Impressions
In general, youth and parents both spoke of the opportunities available in Canada, as well as the challenges and stresses related to adapting to a new home. In regard to the school system, some immigrant youth spoke positively about their first impressions and experiences of high school. For them, high school offered new benefits and opportunities not available in their native countries (e.g., more freedoms, better preparation for post-secondary education). Yet other youth also described their first experience of high school as a time of intense confusion and disorientation. This was especially the case for youth who struggled with English when they first arrived.
2. What Enables Positive Outcomes
The enabling factors are organized under three main categories: individual and family level, institutional level and community level. The individual and family level included self-motivation, family support, peer support, and friendships. The institutional level included supportive teachers and principals, consistent and quality education, and specific school, or school-community support systems. On the community level, enabling factors included community support services.
3. What Hinders Positive Outcomes
There are three main categories: individual and family level, institutional level, and socio-political level. Although presented as individual factors, quite often participants reported that a combination of factors led to negative outcomes for youth in high school. On the individual level, the hindering factors were difficulties fitting in to high school culture; the trauma and stress of escaping from war or violence in their native countries; their parents’ unemployment; and parent-child role reversal. The institutional level included unwelcoming school culture and climate; inadequate resources and support systems in school; and difficulties with the school system and meeting academic requirements. The socio-economic level included gaps in education and lack of fluency in English; and teasing and bullying from their peers.
With all this information, the researchers were able to devise a set of recommendations to improve the immigrant experience in high school and possibly reduce drop-out rates.
by Betty Diop (Re:LIFE Writer/Columnist)
B.A. Applied Psychology