Schools 'holding breath' as immigrant children arrive

Courtesy USA Today

As many as 50,000 unaccompanied immigrant children are set to start school this month nationwide, causing uncertainty among some public schools.

"We haven't started school yet, so we are all just holding our breaths to see what's going to come on the first day of school," said Caroline Woodason, assistant director of school support for Dalton Public Schools in Georgia.

Under federal law, all children are entitled to a free public education, regardless of their immigration status.

It's nothing new for public schools to serve immigrant students. But Francisco Nagron, general counsel for the National School Board Association, said, "One of the challenges here, though, is the large number of unaccompanied minors."

"This is a whole new wave of immigrant students that are coming without any guardians whatsoever," Nagron said.

Public schools in Florida, Texas and Georgia know the unaccompanied minors are already in their states, mainly from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. But they don't know how many will end up enrolling and in which school districts.

Last school year, Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland enrolled 107 unaccompanied minors and has "no expectations" about how many could enroll this school year, said school district spokesman Dana Tofig.
Maryland saw more than 2,200 unaccompanied minors arrive this year, as of July 7, according to the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement. 


"We don't know the educational background (of the students), if they've even been to school, the language issue and operational issues that could raise costs beyond those raised initially through state funding," Nagron said.

The Department of Education did not provide USA TODAY Network with specifics on guidance to school districts. The agency has a team to take "inquiries received from the field" and identify resources for school districts, according to an e-mail from Dorie Nolt, DOE press secretary. 

ENOUGH FUNDING?

School districts receive Title III funding under the No Child Left Behind Act for students with limited English proficiency. States can set aside up to 15% for districts that experience a "significant increase" in the number of immigrant students.

Texas sets aside 6% of its Title III funding, or $5.9 million, said DeEtta Culbertson, spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency. New York sets aside 10.5% or $5.2 million and California sets aside 5% or $8 million, reports Education Week.
But it's unclear if the current school district budgets are enough.

Florida is increasing the percentage of set-aside Title III funding from 7.5% to 12.5%, which comes out to about $5.4 million this school year in set-aside funding for new immigrant arrivals, said Cheryl Etters, spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Education.

This increase reflects more immigrant children enrolling in Florida schools but does not include the most recent wave of unaccompanied minors from Central America, Etters said.

The district with the most recently-arrived immigrant children -- Miami-Dade County School District -- requested additional federal funding last week to support what it expects to be a flood of new students.

Miami is home to the country's largest Honduran population, and in the last three months of the school year, the district enrolled 300 children from Honduras, said superintendent Alberto Carvalho.

The district has plenty of English-as-second-language teachers, as well as relationships with local social services.

But "there's an unknown factor" of how new students will impact the district financially, Carvalho said.

Miami-Dade estimates it spends an additional $1,959 in local funds on immigrant children, Carvalho said in a July 30 letter to Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz.

In addition to health screenings, students need social and psychological services because of the "dramatic conditions they left behind of violence or gang violence or poverty, coupled with what is often a traumatic experience during their journey," Carvalho said.

'NEWCOMER ACADEMY'

Using Title III funds, Dalton Public Schools in Georgia set up what it calls a "Newcomer Academy" this year when it saw that about 30 students needed English training.

Georgia received more than 1,100 unaccompanied minors this year, as of July 7, according to the federal ORR data.

Last year, the district received $200,000 in Title III funding for its 1,800 English language learners, about a quarter of the overall student population, Woodason said.

Whitfield County Schools, also in Georgia, set up a similar academy over the summer. Last school year, the district enrolled 13 unaccompanied immigrant children from Guatemala and El Salvador. Most don't speak Spanish but their native Mayan dialects, said Eric Beaver, spokeswoman for the school district, in an e-mail.

At Dalton, teachers must use "a lot of pictures, hands-on teaching and pointing," Woodason said.

In addition to language skills, Dalton's school district is teaching basic technology skills. Many of the district's unaccompanied immigrant students haven't seen a computer before, Woodason said.

Follow @JolieLeeDC on Twitter.


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