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Districts brace for surge of immigrant students

Since October, more than 57,500 unaccompanied minors from Central America have been detained at the Mexican border
A California high school supported by the Internationals Network for Public Schools admits only English language learners.
A California high school supported by the Internationals Network for Public Schools admits only English language learners.

Districts far from Central America are experiencing record surges in immigrant student enrollment this fall—and must find the funding to accommodate these students but also provide them with mental health and English language services.

Since last October, more than 57,500 unaccompanied minors from Central America have been detained by U.S. Border Patrol Agents at the Mexican border. This is an increase from 27,900 in 2013, and fewer than 4,000 in 2011.

These unaccompanied minors are primarily from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, and are fleeing from home to escape extreme gang violence and high murder rates in their towns, says Claire Sylvan, executive director of the Internationals Network for Public Schools, a nonprofit that partners with districts to create schools for recently arrived immigrant youth.

“These students have a legal right to education in our districts,” Sylvan says. “It’s our job to figure out how to create supports with our government and community organizations so schools don’t have to do it alone.”

District impact

Texas, New York, Florida, California, Virginia and Maryland have established Central American immigrant communities and have received the most immigrant children who were released to family or sponsors this school year, according to federal data.

Miami-Dade County Public Schools received 300 immigrant students in the last few months of the school year, primarily unaccompanied minors from Honduras. “We’re bracing ourselves for several hundred to a couple of thousand additional students entering our schools in the first months of the school year,” Superintendent Alberto Carvalho told DA.

Miami-Dade is familiar with educating immigrant students—about half of the county’s population was born outside of the United States, Carvalho says. “Within that huge number of foreign-born students, the number 300 is not significant, but when you compare by nation and the increase from the prior year, it is an indication of something bigger to come.”

The new Central American students are poor and speak limited English, often with little formal education, Carvalho says. Many have undergone traumatic experiences in their home country or during the journey to the United States, and will need social and psychological services.

The per-pupil annual cost for additional services for immigrant students is over $1,950, Carvalho says.

In June, the Miami-Dade school board approved Carvalho’s request to Congress seeking extra federal funding to educate these students, so as not to burden local taxpayers.

Carvalho says that administrators who are anticipating an increase in immigrant students should provide staff with extra English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) training, and ramp up social and psychological services. They can also partner with community agencies to provide health care and other services for students and their families.

“We have a legal and moral obligation to educate these kids,” Carvalho says. “While they’re being taught in our schools, they ought to be afforded the dignity that they deserve.”

Increasing services

The U.S. Department of Education estimated the annual cost of English language instruction to be $770 per student in 2011. Schools with an influx of immigrant students can tap federal Title III funds, which are primarily meant to help limited-English students (including immigrants) attain English proficiency. The U.S. Department of Education grants Title III funds to the state using a formula based on the number of limited-English and immigrant students enrolled in the state.

In Prince George’s County Public Schools in Maryland, a district of 125,000 students, the number of immigrant students nearly doubled from an estimated 90 in 2012-13 to 175 in 2013-14. The district has provided to students mentoring, counseling and other resources to families using Title III funds, says Patricia Chiancone, an international student counselor.

Prince George’s County schools began preparing for the influx about a year ago by providing increased professional development on trauma and cultural understanding to teachers.

For example, all teachers learn to respect and integrate the languages and cultures of immigrant students into classroom learning. Chiancone advises training or hiring staff who are linguistically and culturally able to work with these students.

“Administrators should be aware that the kids are seeing the media attention on this, and they have heard some say ‘Send them back,’” says Chiancone. “It’s really good for someone to welcome them actively, because they seem very scared.”

A ‘humanitarian crisis’

President Barack Obama called the increase a “humanitarian crisis” last May. He opened three emergency shelters in California, Oklahoma and Texas to add to the 100 federal shelters where unaccompanied minors wait for immigration hearings or to be reunited with family living in the United States.

In July, the Obama administration asked Congress for $3.7 billion to set up new detention facilities and to hire more immigration judges and Border Patrol agents to respond to the flood of children.

Children of illegal immigrants have the same right to attend public schools as U.S. citizens, according to the 1982 Supreme Court ruling Plyler vs. Doe. Districts can require proof of local residency, but may not deny admission because a student is in the country illegally.

The law also prohibits forcing families to disclose their immigration status. The Obama administration issued a letter last May warning school district leaders not to deny enrollment to undocumented students.

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