- July 9, 2019
LAKE WORTH, Fla. — Dayvin Mungia, 7, arrived from El Salvador at South Grade Elementary in South Florida last year with, it seemed, no schooling at all. “He didn’t even recognize the first letter of his name,” said Nicol Sakellarios, his second-grade teacher, as the smiling boy gamely stumbled through his ABC’s in summer school not long ago. “Good job, my love,” she said, prodding him on as he faltered again and again.
Laura Martin, 16, who attended school for only three years in Guatemala and speaks an indigenous language, plans to enroll in high school in Florida next month. “Illiterate” and “0” were scrawled on a math work sheet that she tried and failed to complete after she made her way across the border in May.
Migrant children arriving in record numbers are creating challenges for school districts across the country. Many of the newcomers have disjointed or little schooling; their parents, often with limited reading and writing skills themselves and no familiarity with the American education system, are unable to help.
Schools in places like Lake Worth, a city near President Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort that has become a favorite destination for Guatemalans, are scrambling to hire new staff and add summer sessions to support the newcomers.
Last year, the Palm Beach County school district enrolled 4,555 Guatemalan students in K through 12, nearly 50 percent more than two years earlier. Many of the students come from the country’s remote highlands and speak neither Spanish nor English. The number of elementary school students in K through 5 more than doubled to 2,119 in that same period.
Ana Arce-Gonzalez, the principal at South Grade Elementary School in the heart of Lake Worth’s immigrant enclave, said that in 25 years as an educator she had never experienced anything like it. The school saw its enrollment rise from 820 at the beginning of the last school year to 910 in the spring, pushing it over capacity.
“It speaks to what is happening at the border,” she said.
Under a 1982 Supreme Court decision, all children, regardless of immigration status, are entitled to a K through 12 education. With hundreds of thousands of new parents and children crossing the border in recent months, districts across the country are having to transfer teachers to affected schools, expand bilingual training for staff and prepare for students who may be traumatized.
“We are going to educate every child on our doorstep,” said Cade Brumley, superintendent of schools in Jefferson Parish, La., outside New Orleans. But, “there is a fiscal impact. It’s not uncommon for us to hear legitimate concerns from the public about the allocation of resources,” he said.
The school district of 50,000 people enrolled 1,000 new Central American students last year, prompting a hiring spree of bilingual teachers and front office staff, and in the fall the district will roll out 15 dual-language schools and “newcomer centers” to cater to Spanish speakers.
Nearly half of the books at the library in the Munger Mountain Elementary school in Jackson, Wyo., are in Spanish, where the immigrant population has ballooned in recent years. The school has recently begun offering all instruction in both English and Spanish
Scott Eastman, the principal, said that students do not just arrive with learning deficiencies. One child had been separated from his family, and was so traumatized he didn’t speak for weeks. “He constantly cried, worrying that his grandmother was going to be killed back in El Salvador and that he would never see his parents again,” Mr. Eastman said.
In Florida, Mayan Guatemalans first settled in Indiantown, a village northwest of Palm Beach’s luxurious estates, in the 1980s, to toil in vegetable fields and citrus groves after fleeing a counterinsurgency campaign by the Guatemalan military. Indigenous Guatemalans have arrived here ever since, but spiraling violence and an unforgiving drought that has driven subsistence farmers off their land back home has caused a surge in the last two years.
Lake Worth is a relatively affordable city of 39,000 people and easily accessible to hotels, golf courses, farms and nurseries that hire immigrants. It is also home to immigrants from Haiti and other Central American countries; still, Guatemalans represent the largest group among Hispanics, who now account for more than 40 percent of the city’s population.
Like other districts serving low-income and immigrant students, Palm Beach County receives an infusion of federal funds to provide extra help for disadvantaged students and those who struggle with English. And while more money would be welcome, it is not the crux of the problem, said Harvey Oaxaca, head of the district’s multicultural education programs.
The district identified 2,000 students in the seventh to 11th grades for remedial summer school English classes. Only half have registered. Many are tending to younger siblings or working to help their families make ends meet.
Lake Worth High School offers evening tutorials and other programs. But district officials said many students choose instead to work — either to send money home, to pay off debts to migrant smugglers or to support themselves in the United States.
“They have to go to school, but that is not what they came here for,” Mr. Oaxaca said.
Critics say immigrant students could do better if the district provided more support, including hiring more interpreters. But district officials say it has been tough to hire speakers of Mayan languages, such as Q’anjob’al and Mam, whose educational qualifications fulfill state requirements. Currently, only four interpreters make the rounds of the entire district.
Parents recognize the value of education for their children, say those who work with the Guatemalan community. An early literacy program offered by the Guatemalan-Maya Center, a nonprofit that serves migrant families, is oversubscribed. But in addition to poverty, language barriers and financial stresses, the families’ tenuous stay in the United States — most are in deportation proceedings — hangs over them and their children.
After Mr. Trump announced a nationwide series of planned immigration raids last month, which he later suspended, students began to miss summer school. A new Florida law passed in May that requires local government agencies to cooperate with federal immigration authorities has also sown fear and confusion.
“The constant state of anxiety creates toxic stress for every member of the family,” said Amanda Escalante, who leads the team of early-learning specialists from the Guatemalan-Maya Center. “The kids don’t feel safe and secure.”
Jakelin Raquek, 4, was making steady progress in her pre-K class until her father was arrested by immigration agents in front of her, and later deported. “She was getting sassy in English,” said her teacher, Magda Arguelles. After the episode, she said, the little girl fell apart. “We were never able to get her back into learning mode.”
South Grade Elementary illustrates the challenges. There are children like 8-year-old Sherly Perez, who crossed the border with her father and lives in a room at her aunt’s house. One child lives with 10 other people in a house with just one bathroom. Some fourth and fifth graders have been suicidal and depressed, school officials say.
A quarter of the children last year who enrolled at the school in third grade, the grade during which the state tests student progress in reading and math, were newcomers. Only 11 percent of kindergartners were assessed as “kindergarten ready” when they started school.
Dayvin Mungia, the second grader who had never attended school, was one of several students who were taught numbers and letters on the side by his teacher when the rest of the class was engaged in other activities.
Ms. Arce-Gonzalez decided it was vital to offer year-round instruction if children were to have any hope of catching up. This summer, South Grade has an intensive pre-K section and supplemental kindergarten, first- and second-grade classes funded by a combination of district and nonprofit money. In the fall, the school will offer four dual-language kindergarten classes.
A Cuban-American who is entering her third year at the school, Ms. Arce-Gonzalez said she has wrestled with ways to connect with families, and began making home visits. “It takes a lot of hand-holding. But once you are face-to-face with the parents, they get it,” she said.
To entice parents to attend evening information sessions, she began distributing items, like toiletries, to those who came and stayed until the end. The school opened what she calls a “mini Goodwill store,” which families can visit a couple of times a week.
“I consider us a full-service school. I dress, feed and provide social-emotional support,” said Ms. Arce-Gonzalez, as she showed off cabinets and shelves stocked with new crisp school uniform tops and bottoms, secondhand clothes and food items such as canned vegetables, cereal and pasta, donated by the National Council of Jewish Women and other organizations.
Her courtship worked. When the district redrew its boundaries and several students were threatened with having to go to another school, some of the immigrant parents fought to stay at South Grade.