Melissa Cuba is an assistant professor of special education at the University of Maine College of Education and Human Development. University of Maine photo

ORONO — Having grown up in a multilingual family, Melissa Cuba knows firsthand what school is like for students who have multifaceted identities and come from diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds.

As an assistant professor of special education at the University of Maine College of Education and Human Development, Cuba’s research focuses on a particular subset of multilingual learners — those with disabilities who also require special education services. It’s a growing population across the country and she says more families, teachers, administrators, policymakers and other education stakeholders will need information about how they can best meet these students’ academic, linguistic and social-emotional needs, according to a news release from UMaine’s Casey Kelly.

“As students in special education, they have a right to a free, appropriate public education and a plan to individualize instruction for them that meets their disability needs,” Cuba says. “They’re also legally entitled to language development services under Title III of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act to meet their language needs.”

Cuba, who is Peruvian-American, recalls some of the challenges she faced not only as a student who relocated to the U.S. at a young age, but later as an English for Speakers of Other Languages and special education teacher, prior to becoming a professor and researcher.

In 2022, she helped the Maine Department of Education develop a resource guide for educators to support these students. She has also been named to the department’s Multilingual Learner Advisory Council.

Although federal policies require schools to come up with two plans for multilingual learners with disabilities — one for their special education needs and another to meet their language needs — Cuba says often that does not happen.


“There’s a perception that special education supersedes language acquisition services or that the language plan is optional, and that’s not the case,” Cuba says. “So we need to make sure we are informing education stakeholders and schools that they need to be having conversations about the importance of both sets of services and bring educators and other school professionals to the table to understand why.”

As immigration and refugee resettlement patterns shift, Cuba says more communities will see their numbers of multilingual learners with disabilities grow in overlooked spaces.

“In Maine, for example, places like Portland and Lewiston already have robust refugee resettlement programs for families with wraparound services for things like employment and housing,” she says. “But there are also what are called new-immigrant destinations in suburban and rural areas. They might not have seen many multilingual learners with disabilities in the past, let alone those who solely need language acquisition services.”

Although there are growing numbers of multilingual learners with disabilities, Cuba says the research also points to problems with disproportionality, where these students are either over- or underrepresented in special education for various reasons.

“For example, research shows students of color are over-identified and more likely to be segregated in self-contained or life-skills classrooms for special education services compared to their white peers with the same disability, particularly when it comes to subjective categories such as emotional disturbance, intellectual disability and specific learning disability,” Cuba says. “That has implications for learning opportunities, including modified and reduced curricula, which impacts access to content and skill development.”

Cuba and her colleague Adai Tefera from the University of Arizona published a study in Teachers College Record that applied an intersectional framework to data about multilingual students in Virginia, where she did her doctoral research at Virginia Commonwealth University. Examining statewide education statistics, they attempted to obtain a more nuanced understanding of how relationships between race or ethnicity, gender, socio-economic status and other social categories influence educational practices and policies, as well as the extent of disproportionate representation of multilingual learners in special education. To paint an even fuller picture, Cuba also interviewed teachers and staff from one Virginia school district, as well as officials from a state education agency who work with multilingual learners with disabilities.


The study showed that multilingual learners from kindergarten through grade five in Virginia were neither over- nor underrepresented in special education, but they were overrepresented in grades six through 12, which Cuba says contradicts and at times confirms previous research.

“Using an intersectional framework for the statistical analysis revealed disparities that a more one-dimensional approach might obscure, while the interviews helped us better understand why these disparities occur and contextualize how multilingual learner policies and practices are communicated and implemented within schools,” Cuba says.

The interviews also provided some interesting insights, such as educators grappling with how their perceptions of immigrant families impact the services offered to and educational outcomes achieved by multilingual learners. For instance, one teacher said he had seen his immigrant students experience racism, yet he still used stereotypes when discussing those students. He described them as “children of very hardworking parents, and they’re very hardworking,” while adding that they “don’t always know how to translate hard work into learning.” On the other hand, a state education official talked about the need to address deficit thinking among educators, in which they blame their students’ failures on their linguistic diversity rather than deficiencies of the systems and structures that surround them.

Overall, Cuba says the study shows the importance of context and nuance when it comes to supporting multilingual learners.

“All of these issues are contextual,” she says. “How our educational systems function, who informs them and who is at the table, as well as the historical context of communities.”

Moving forward, Cuba is focusing her work on schools and communities in Maine, fostering collaboration among stakeholders and developing tools and interventions to better serve multilingual learners in special education.


“Now we have to talk about solutions: reducing disparities by training education stakeholders, mitigating burdens on families, working with them so they are co-constructing and informing the solutions,” she says.

The UMaine College of Education and Human Development recently launched a Multilingual Special Education graduate certificate designed for practicing teachers who want a deeper understanding of evidence-based practices and educational policies to support culturally and linguistically diverse students with disabilities.

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