Newcomer schools ease transition for unaccompanied minors

A boy on the Mexican side of the U.S.-Mexico border fence peers into Arizona following a special Mass on the Border on April 1, 2014 in Nogales, Arizona.

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This school year, thousands of unaccompanied minors who have crossed the border with Mexico will enroll in U.S. schools.

By law, all children, regardless of immigration status, have the right to enroll in public school. But absorbing immigrant kids, many of whom don’t speak English, poses a challenge for educators and getting them up to speed is difficult.

To ease the process, some cities and school districts have created transitional programs called newcomer schools. This year, those programs may be more critical than ever.

In San Francisco, the Mission Education Center will help Spanish-speaking students who arrived in the United States over the summer. As the San Francisco Chronicle reported recently, the school is not new, but teachers have seen class sizes double this year as unaccompanied minors make their way to the city.

Like most newcomer schools, the Mission Education Center offers one- and two-year programs aimed at helping children transfer into mainstream classes. The school is a stand-alone operation, but other newcomer schools operate as separate classrooms within larger traditional elementary and high schools.

The schools don't just teach students English and subjects like math and science. Some of the students have suffered trauma in their home countries or during their journey north. Others have had little or no formal schooling. Many newcomer programs offer support groups for students and parents who may be unfamiliar with the U.S. education system. Some parents haven’t seen their children in years and have just been reunited.

San Diego Unified School District's New Arrival Center program offers classes at four of the district's high schools, a spokeswoman said. The classes help teens who have arrived in the country recently adjust to American schools and lessons in English. They remain in the program for about two semesters, and then transition into standard courses.

According to a 2012 report from The Center for Applied Linguistics (CAL), there are more than 60 such secondary newcomer programs in the U.S., and many at the elementary level. And they aren’t just in California. Cities like Columbus, Ohio, Fort Worth, Texas, and New York have transitional schools that could serve an important role in helping the recent wave of unaccompanied minors adjust.

"The important thing with newcomer schools is they’re sensitive, they’re already sensitized to the fact that students might be arriving not at grade level," said Dr. M. Beatriz Arias, vice president of the center.

According to recent government data, more than 37,000 unaccompanied minors were released to sponsors, usually relatives, all over the United States between January and the end of July.

Many of the kids are going to relocate to Texas, New York, California and Florida. According to the CAL report, Texas, New York and California have multiple newcomer schools. There is at least one in Florida.

While most of the newcomer schools Fusion contacted said it was too early to tell whether the recent crush of child migrants will mean an increase in attendance, some schools are reporting more students than in previous years.

"Some schools have already been feeling an increase," Arias said. "I do know that, from the people in our organization who do professional development, schools in South Texas have been feeling a pressure as well as some schools in California."

The New York Department of Education expects 8,000 children to be placed with sponsors in New York this year, but does not know how many are unaccompanied migrants because the school system does not track immigration status. The city has several newcomer schools that could help the children transition into traditional schools.

The Los Angeles Unified School District, one of the nation’s most diverse, does not have newcomer schools, but offers assistance through the Student Enrollment and Placement Assessment (SEPA) Center, which is designed to help newly arrived immigrant children transition into the school system.

According to Ellen Morgan, a spokeswoman for the district, the center has “seen an influx of children from Central America” in recent years.

The center typically assists 1,400 students each year, but last school year, the center helped 1,800 children, a nearly 30 percent increase from previous years.

Much of the increase, Morgan said, occurred during the final three months of the school year, as the center saw many children immigrating from Central America. Approximately 80 percent of the new enrollees who crossed the border are unaccompanied, she said.

The federal government has said it will try to help heavily impacted school districts with extra resources. But the No Child Left Behind law, which aimed to raise proficiency levels among all students, has prompted some newcomer schools to shutter their doors in recent years because they would not fare well under the testing requirements the law mandates. Budget cuts have also hit newcomer programs hard.

Dr. Terrence Wiley, president of CAL, said how newcomers are received really depends on individual districts. Some prepare for and serve newcomers well while others operate more reactively and are caught by surprise when the need for such programs arises. Regardless, Wiley says the programs offer young people support that helps them succeed.

"I think that with these schools, we do have enough research on the success they have had in the past with these populations,” he said, “that we know they do provide a valuable role."

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