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Students with Interrupted Formal Education


Who are our Students with Interrupted Formal Education (SIFE)?


Students with Interrupted Formal Education (SIFE) are newcomer refugee and immigrant children who have had limited access to formal education or whose education has been interrupted for months or years prior to their arrival in the United States. SIFE are a special subgroup of English learners (ELs), students who require specialized or modified instruction in order to learn English as well as academics.

In the U.S., the largest number of SIFE are currently from Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. Refugees make up the second largest group of SIFE and are the most diverse, arriving from 80 different countries, with the majority from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Syria, Burma, Bhutan, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Somalia. These refugees speak over 228 languages. Many have spent years in refugee camps; and some are not literate in their own languages.

Many refugee and immigrant youth have experienced limited or interrupted formal education due to war or civil strife, flight from persecution, or years in refugee camps. For others, their education may have been limited due to poverty, geographic isolation, or societal expectations, such as the need to work to support their families. Many SIFE will benefit from cultural and emotional support that builds on their resilience as they adjust to a new home, particularly those who have endured traumatic journeys.


How many SIFE are there in the U.S.?

Data on SIFE are limited. Most states and districts only collect data according to EL rather than SIFE status; in addition, the definition of SIFE is not uniform across states. However, recent estimates of SIFE place them at between 10 and 20 per cent of the EL student population, or between 500,000 to one million children today.


Why do so many SIFE not graduate from high school?

Like other ELs, SIFE must learn English simultaneously with core content areas while adjusting to a new education system and culture. However, SIFE are also making up for years of lost schooling, sometimes in a classroom structure for the first time, often learning the basic building blocks of literacy, and always catching up on missed academic content. Regardless, they are held to the same accountability standards as other students, and they have a limited time to meet requirements for graduation, including passing the standardized tests mandated by most states. Since studies show that it can take SIFE up to ten years to learn academic English, it can be challenging if not impossible for these students to meet high school graduation requirements within this time frame. In other cases, teens may arrive in the U.S. in order to work to support their families and they may never enroll in high school. These young people may not realize that all states have mandatory school attendance laws or how limited their future job prospects will be in the U.S. without a high school degree. There are also reported cases of some teens being turned away when they attempted to enroll in high school, a practice which runs counter to U.S. federal laws.  


What are the specific educational needs of SIFE?

Educators who work with SIFE need to have several areas of specialized knowledge and skills. In addition, they need to either know or be willing to learn about the cultural and migration backgrounds of their students. In some cases, SIFE may have never been in a formal classroom setting and must first be taught what is expected in this new context.

Conducting an accurate educational assessment of these students can be challenging due to cultural and language barriers and the frequent lack of documentation regarding prior schooling. Accurate assessment requires an understanding of background factors, as well as how to find and work with interpreters, especially  low-incidence languages. Researchers have found that SIFE may be referred unnecessarily to special education classes due to the challenges of assessing behavior and language across such different backgrounds. 


To help prepare SIFE to transition to mainstream classes, many schools provide intensive and specialized education for one to two years after their arrival, either through additional classes or through specialized centers, such as those provided through Newcomer Programs. Some research-based educational strategies used for ELs, such as sheltered instruction, have been shown to be effective for this population. Those working with SIFE must be knowledgeable and skilled in teaching literacy and English to speakers of other languages.

Finally, SIFE will benefit from additional social and cultural supports, particularly those students who have experienced trauma and loss and whose families may be undergoing a challenging transition. Many school systems have used mentoring, tutoring, afterschool and summer programs, and have partnered with local ethnic community organizations to successfully provide needed support to these students and to their families. Such organizations can also serve as essential resources to the schools on culture, language, and as trusted liaisons to families. Some jurisdictions have adopted the “community schools” approach, where the school is open to the entire community 24/7 and collaborates with other service providers to enable coordinated, holistic care to all children and families.


What are the costs to these young people and to U.S. society if they do not graduate high school?

In addition to the fundamental right to education, we know that lack of a high school degree results in important social costs. In addition to the obvious social and emotional costs to the individual who does not complete high school, there is a fiscal price as well. The government has estimated that it costs about $60,000 to educate an EL through high school.  It has also been estimated that each person who does not complete high school costs the US taxpayer $292,000 in lost wages and government expenses. Multiply the difference in these two numbers and the savings for educating these half a million students is well over $100 billion!



Based on current research and practice expertise in the field, we believe that the following policy recommendations to federal, state, and local education agencies are essential to support SIFE towards the successful completion of high school:

  1. Improve data collection on SIFE, including the development of a consistent definition ofSIFE that would not only enable data collection but also the ability to compare data acrossjurisdictions.

  2. Collect data on the demographics, backgrounds, and performance of SIFE.

  3. Strengthen systems to facilitate early identification and accurate assessment of SIFE.

  4. Provide pre-service teachers and administrators basic information on working with English learners, and SIFE in particular before they enter the classroom.

  5. Ensure all school staff receive professional development regarding SIFE and that educators working with SIFE are trained in the specialized knowledge and skills needed to support their success in the classroom.

    1. Provide effective outreach to SIFE who have not enrolled in school, making sure they are aware of their right and obligation to attend high school, the difference that a high schooldegree will make in their lives, and the specialized programs and services available tosupport their success.

    2. Ensure effective outreach to families of SIFE, taking languages, literacy levels, andcultures into account.

    3. Review and implement effective models for serving SIFE, such as Newcomer Programs,sheltered instruction, partnering with local ethnic community organizations, and the community schools approach

    4. Use extended graduation timelines for SIFE.


       “SIFEs will flourish in an educational environment that is reflective of their academic and cultural needs, with an emphasis on intentional instruction

to enrich their knowledge.”

Robertson, K. & Lafond, S., 2015


This information is based on the SIFE TESOL Policy Brief developed by Lyn Morland and Brenda Custodio.

For more details: Custodio & O’Loughlin, Students with Interrupted Formal Education, 2017 (Corwin). 

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