Adult ESOL Programs as Agents of Immigrant Integration

June 16th, 2021 | Blogs

Immigration defines the past, present, and future of the United States. Immigrants’ contributions to U.S. society and their integration underlie the nation’s progress to date and its ability to thrive in the future. Immigrants* and their children will account for 85% of the net growth in the U.S. workforce over the next 20 years; by 2030, nearly one in five U.S. workers will be immigrants. Ensuring that immigrants can capitalize on their current education and experience and access additional education and training is key to communities’ prosperity. As well, immigrants’ civic integration strengthens the social and political fabric of communities.

Immigrant integration is defined as a dynamic, two-way process in which immigrants and the receiving society work together to build secure, vibrant, and cohesive communities. Therefore, adult English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) programs that embrace an immigrant integration mission face the challenge of developing activities that go beyond classroom-based language instruction –bringing the community into the classroom and the classroom into the community. ESOL programs have an important role to play in advancing the integration of immigrants inside and outside of the classroom. As one of the first places newcomers turn to for support in navigating their new environments, ESOL programs are uniquely positioned to facilitate activities that can help immigrants build the skills that will enable them to function effectively in the economic and civic life of their communities.

Networks for Integrating New Americans
Networks for Integrating New Americans was a national initiative that sought to position adult education programs as key contributors to local, multi-sector networks formed to advance immigrant integration. It was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education Office of Career, Technical and Adult Education (OCTAE) and led by World Education and its partners: the National Partnership for New Americans (NPNA), IMPRINT, and Welcoming America. The initiative’s goal was to strengthen adult education programs’ ability to 1) improve immigrants’ access to effective and innovative English language programs; 2) support immigrants on the path to citizenship; and 3) support immigrants’ career development through training and education. The project aimed to break down silos and address gaps in existing services for immigrants while tapping into the potential of adult ESOL programs to be more active agents of immigrant integration.

Five networks of organizations were selected through a national, open, and competitive application process:

  • Central Valley Immigrant Integration Network, California
  • Lancaster County Refugee Coalition, Pennsylvania
  • Neighbors United, Boise, Idaho
  • We Rhode Island
  • White Center Promise, King County, Washington

Over the following two years, they received technical assistance from World Education, its partners, and other experts to strengthen local networks’ operations and ability to better facilitate immigrants’ linguistic, economic, and civic integration.

Network for Integrating New Americans Theoretical Framework

The initiative’s implementation was guided by a Theoretical Framework based on theory and research about immigrant integration and related promising practices. The project intentionally used organizational networks as the primary vehicle for promoting immigrant integration because, when the organizations in the immigrant and receiving communities are collaborating and aligned, they are able to mobilize both communities to address common needs, share their unique strengths, and find a constructive path through times of transition.

The Networks for Integrating New Americans project facilitated the integration of services that support three pillars of integrations: linguistic, economic, and civic. Such services have historically been compartmentalized by service type, populations served, or program goals. As community networks work together to assess the strengths and gaps in their combined services, however, they are able to build more fluid connections among those services (referrals, joint projects, etc.), address missing pieces, and create new collaborative efforts. With such coordination, the networks can have a greater collective impact than each of its member organizations does separately.

Linguistic Integration. It is clear that the ability to communicate in English is critical for immigrants to be able to attain better jobs, advance in their careers, participate more fully in civic life, and become more integral members of the larger community. Linguistic integration is a gradual process in which ESOL providers play a central role that can be strengthened in multiple ways. Examples of linguistic integration topics that the initiative focused on include: Vocational ESOL; ESOL literacy; Use of technology to accelerate learning; College and career readiness; Learner persistence; and Parental engagement and family learning.

Economic Integration. Finding a job that pays a living wage is the top priority for most working-age immigrants. Economic integration occurs when immigrants have the resources to excel and obtain economic self-sufficiency and employers are able to attract and retain the best talent, and when both employers and immigrant workers understand their rights. This vision of economic integration is not a reality for many immigrants given that immigrants are disproportionately concentrated in low-wage jobs that do not pay family-sustaining wages. It is one that the initiative sought to address by strengthening the selected networks’ ability to facilitate immigrants’ job and college readiness as well as financial literacy.

In the short-term, immigrants need job readiness skills and job placement assistance. To move ahead beyond the first job they are able to land in the U.S., most immigrants need further education and training and an understanding about the local labor market and how to pursue the most viable career pathway. Immigrant and non-immigrant adults with a postsecondary credential are more likely to succeed in the U.S. labor market than are those without one, be it a certificate or a degree.

Examples of economic integration topics that the initiative focused on include: career pathways for immigrant English learners with credentials from other countries; closer collaboration with local workforce boards and local employers to secure access to training and jobs for program participants; closer collaboration with local community colleges to bridge ESOL to postsecondary education; and career planning and job search services.

Civic Integration. Civic participation is fundamental to a well-functioning democracy. Civic integration occurs when all community members have a sense of belonging in the community and ownership in the nation’s future, and are secure in and exercise their rights.

Citizenship is a classic benchmark of integration in any society. In the U.S., with citizenship comes the right to vote and access to public benefits as well as the ability to sponsor family members for immigration. Even if they have not yet attained citizenship, immigrants should be encouraged and prepared to participate in civic life, such as joining local task forces to address community issues and helping to organize neighborhood activities. Such participation increases interactions with other immigrant and receiving community members and signals immigrants’ commitment to their community and new country. It develops leadership skills and social and professional ties that can expand immigrants’ access to resources and job opportunities.

Examples of civic integration topics that the initiative focused on include: voter education and registration; citizenship classes in collaboration with a local library; communitywide Big Read campaign that used an autobiographical novel by an Ethiopian immirant as a springboard for discussion of real-life community issues.

Adult education programs need to claim their place as instrumental to immigrant integration. They are in a strong position to weave language instruction with economic and civic integration activities. Many are already active in local networks and coalitions to access and align services their students. The Networks for Integrating New Americans points to the many ways in which adult education programs can draw strength from local networks that coordinate their activities.

Written by Silja Kallenbach, Vice President of World Education

Read the Lessons Learned from Network for Integrating New Americans and the supporting Theoretical Framework that details numerous examples of existing initiatives, research, and promising practices related to immigrants’ linguistic, economic, and civic integration.

*For the sake of brevity, the term ‘immigrants’ refers to immigrants and refugees.

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