Center for the Study of Youth & Political Conflict

The University of Tennessee, Knoxville

School Success for Refugee and Immigrant Youth

The United States takes in 73% of all refugees who need third-country resettlement as identified by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Nearly 3 million refugees have been resettled in the U.S. in the last 30 years, at an annual cost of approximately $700 million.

School enrollment is an early experience for refugee youth in the U.S. They are enrolled in the age-appropriate grade, regardless of language ability or prior education. Older children’s adaptation to school can be challenging, as many have no prior education and almost all have language barriers. Estimated four-year graduation rates for students who arrive in the United States as adolescents range from 8% to 79%. Surely some of the difference in student success between schools is due to selection—the different backgrounds of refugees in different schools—but preliminary evidence also suggests that schools’ efforts to help refugees adapt and learn also matters. Current research in this area is limited, and the number of documented effective programs promoting school success is scarce.

The Center has undertaken two projects, led by Clea McNeely, related to promoting school success among newly-arrived refugee youth.  We define school success broadly to include school engagement and progression, academic performance, social and emotional development, and mental and physical health.

Effective Strategies for Promoting School Success for Newly-Arrived Adolescent Refugees and Immigrants: New Directions for Research

This project will convene approximately 30 researchers and practitioners on May 30-31, 2013 at the Urban Institute in Washington, DC to:

  1. Identify what is currently known about effective strategies to foster school success among newly-arrived adolescent refugees and immigrants who are in middle and high school;
  2. Identify critical gaps in the basic and applied research; and,
    1. Propose a research agenda to address those critical gaps.

Confirmed speakers include:

  • Carola Suarez-Orozco, Professor of Education at UCLA
  • Dina Birman, Associate Professor of Psychology at University of Illinois at Chicago
  • Ricardo Stanton-Salazar, an independent consultant based in Los Angeles
  • Brenda Custodio, assistant principal for a newcomer program and author of How To Design and Implement a Newcomer Program
  •  Heidi Ellis, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Children’s Hospital Boston/Harvard Medical School
  • Altaf Hussain, Assistant Professor of Social Work at Howard University
  • Heather Koball, Senior Fellow at the Urban Institute
  • Paul Smokowski, Professor of Social Work at the UNC Chapel Hill
  • Lyn Morland, Executive Director of Bridging Refugee Youth and Children’s Services (BRYCS).

Evaluation of Caring Across Communities: School-Based Mental Health Services for Refugee and Immigrant Children and Youth

Clea McNeely conducted an evaluation of Caring Across Communities, a program funded by The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and administered by the Center for Health and Health Care in Schools at George Washington University. Fifteen sites were funded to provide culturally-appropriate, school-based mental health services to immigrant and refugee children and youth. The evaluation report is available here:  CAC final evaluation report


Posters and papers presented at conference

Allen, C., McNeely, C.A. (2013) Everyday Challenges for Refugee and Immigrant Children and Families: A Qualitative Appraisal of Theoretical Models of Adaptation. Annual Meeting of the Society for Research on Adolescence. Seattle, Washington, April 18-20.

McNeely, C.A., Sprecher, K., and Bates, D. (2011) Everyday Challenges for Refugee and Immigrant Families: The Primacy of Resources. Presented at the annual meeting of the National Council on Family Relations, November 17-19, Orlando, FL, November 17-19.

Behrens, D., C.A. McNeely, and K. Sprecher (2011) Overcoming Stigma About Mental Health Services: Lessons from Working with Refugee and Immigrant Families. Presented at the annual meeting of the American Public Health Association, October 31, Washington, D.C.

Sprecher, K., McNeely, C.A., and Behrens, D. (2011) Overcoming Stigma About Mental Health Services: Some Key Lessons for Working with Refugee and Immigrant Families. Presented at the 16thannual Conference on Advancing School Mental Health, September 22-24, Charleston, S.C.

Behrens, D. and C.A. McNeely (2010) Innovations and Cultural Adaptations: Some Key Lessons for Effective School Mental Health Programs. Presented at the 15th annual Conference on Advancing School Mental Health, October 8, Albequerque, NM.


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