Who are Houston’s newcomer students, and how can schools help them succeed?


Students illustrate their own stories in a classroom.

Photo by Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for EDUimages

When immigrant children and teens enter the United States, the transition can be overwhelming.

Many arrive with financial challenges, limited English-language skills, gaps in their education and a range of social and emotional needs. Because many enter the country as refugees or asylees, they may have also experienced significant trauma.

To ease this transition — and specifically the adjustment to American public schools — school districts across the country have set up newcomer programs that function as temporary “shock absorbers,” offering courses and other services tailored to the needs of this unique population.

The Houston Independent School District, the largest public district in Texas, has enrolled an average of nearly 5,500 newcomer students annually since the 2012-13 school year. Given the increasing number of newcomers entering schools across the country — with states like Massachusetts, Colorado and New York all reporting significant increases recently — lessons learned from places like Houston that have a long history of serving these students and their families can guide strategies nationwide.

HISD operates two newcomer schools designed to serve recently arrived emergent bilingual students: Las Americas Newcomer School (formerly known as Las Americas Middle School) for students in grades 4-8 who have been in the U.S. for less than one year, and Liberty High School for high school age and older, non-traditional students. Both are schools of choice, meaning that any student living within the district boundaries can choose to attend.

All campuses in HISD support students of differing language needs, so because families have to opt in to attend the newcomer schools, it might not be surprising that between 2008-09 and 2018-19, less than 20% of eligible students enrolled at these specialized campuses.

One significant barrier to enrollment appears to be HISD’s geography. The neighborhoods surrounding the newcomer campuses in southwest Houston have a high proportion of immigrant residents, and the schools recruit heavily in the area. As a result, many Las Americas and Liberty students live within 20 minutes of their schools.

Other neighborhoods in the eastern and southeastern parts of Houston have similar concentrations of newcomer students, but few from these areas travel across the district to attend Las Americas or Liberty. Las Americas once offered busing for students who lived farther away; though enrollment increased, the vast majority of students still came from southwest Houston.

Newcomer programs provide short-term, intensive support to students and families. Participants sometimes have to exit the programs within a year or two, making it difficult to find clear connections with student outcomes. However, a recent study by the Kinder Institute for Urban Research's Houston Education Research Consortium, completed in partnership with HISD, showed that attending Las Americas was associated with improved academic and behavioral outcomes.

Las Americas students scored higher on the English portion of end-of-course exams and experienced significantly fewer disciplinary sanctions compared to newcomer students attending other campuses in HISD. By their third year in HISD, Las Americas students were also more likely to be reclassified as English proficient and to take a smaller share of English-as-a-second-language courses, freeing up their schedules to take other classes required for high school graduation and college enrollment.

Students attending Liberty High School had higher drop-out rates and were less likely to take advanced courses than newcomer students attending other schools, but otherwise they had similar academic performance as their peers.

We know newcomer students arrive with a range of experiences, skills and challenges. There is no one way for schools to best support their individual transitions. What makes newcomer schools stand out is their flexibility in tailoring their offerings to their specific students’ needs.

All school districts should take time to learn about their newcomer students and their families so they can create environments that foster success.

Newcomer Students Research Brief
Newcomer Schools in Houston ISD: Examining Student Enrollment and Outcomes (Briefs 1-6)
Jan. 22, 2024

This series focuses on newcomer programs in Houston ISD that serving English learner (EL) students who have recently immigrated to the United States.

Kinder Institute research indicated that newcomer students at Las Americas Middle School improved in English.
Seeking Solutions: Connect Community bolsters success of new immigrants in southwest Houston

Since its founding in 2016, Connect Community and its partners have put $126 million toward community development and holistic revitalization in the Gulfton and Sharpstown neighborhoods in southwest Houston.



Mailing Address

6100 Main St. MS-208
Houston, TX 77005-1892

Subscribe to our e-newsletter

Physical Address

Rice University
Kraft Hall
6100 Main Street, Suite 305
Houston, TX 77005-1892

Featured Sponsor

Support the Kinder Institute