Every year, the United States resettles nearly 70,000 refugees, with a large minority resettling in Marisol County (a pseudonym). Approximately 3,000 students from refugee families are enrolled in local schools, often having received little prior formal education in their home countries. Studies acknowledge the breadth of challenges facing underschooled immigrant students and the schools who serve them. Further compounding the challenge is the recent onset of rigorous local and state policies. Teachers, as the primary point of contact for refugee students, must make sense of and implement the policies in ways that meet the needs underschooled immigrant students, yet little is known about how manage these complex demands. While several studies exist on teachers’ sensemaking of educational policies more generally, no studies deal with the role of teachers in mediating the intersection of policy and underschooled immigrant students. Using a sensemaking perspective, this qualitative study explores how teachers conceptualize their role as mediators between policy and student needs, and how this interpretation affects classroom practice.
This study involved analysis of district policy-related documents, classroom observations, and semi-structured interviews of thirteen participants who worked with the Secondary Newcomer Program (SNP) in Marisol School District, including classroom teachers, lead teachers, counselors, and administrators at both the site and district levels. Data collected from these sources were analyzed for understanding challenges specific to this population of students, finding patterns of faculty’s perceptions of the role of school for underschooled immigrants, and determining teachers’ conceptualization of their role. Each of these factors were then analyzed in relation to how teachers make sense and implement policy in their own classrooms.
Findings indicate that teachers balanced multiple layers of factors in their decision-making, including student challenges, policy demands, and programmatic constraints. Though the district presented a unified policy message related to graduation requirements, participants articulated different purposes of school for underschooled immigrant students. These differing perceptions affected how teachers conceptualized their role and ultimately made curricular, instructional, and student placement decisions. This study’s contributions to research and theory, as well as implications for policy, practice, and future research are also discussed.