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Schools scramble to handle thousands of new migrant families

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 ABCs 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 Donald 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 kindergarten through 12th grade, nearly 50% 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 kindergarten through fifth grade 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-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, Louisiana, 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 the books at the library in the Munger Mountain Elementary school in Jackson, Wyoming, 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,” 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% 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,” Oaxaca said.

Critics say immigrant students could do better if the district provided more support, including hiring more interpreters. But district officials said 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 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 Escobar, 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% 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.

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, Arce-Gonzalez said she 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 to the end. The school opened what she calls a “mini Goodwill store,” which families can visit a couple times a week.

“I consider us a full-service school. I dress, feed and provide social-emotional support,” Arce-Gonzalez said, 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.

Juana Enrique is paying higher rent after relocating to an apartment with an address that guarantees her daughter, Annie Reyes, can stay at South Grade. “My daughter loves the school, and I appreciate the teachers. It is worth the sacrifice,” said Enrique, who is from El Salvador.

Many Lake Worth residents have welcomed the diversity brought by the city’s now numerous immigrants, but some also worry that they could be dragging down educational standards for other students.

“You have to be experiencing real hardship to carry your toddler through the desert to seek a better life,” said Dan Brown, a mail carrier, who said the new immigrants are “perfectly fine neighbors,” but who also said he was considering moving to a place with less-impacted schools when his 2-year-old son is ready for kindergarten.

Some other residents wondered whether they were subsidizing the newly arriving families.

“They’re poor and can’t make it here,” said Jonathan Harris, a real-estate investor who favors stronger controls on immigration. “I am pretty confident that we have enough people already here illegally to do all the jobs that Americans don’t want to get their hands dirty doing,” he said.

But Kim Lingle, a paralegal who has lived for years in Lake Worth, said the new families have been an asset. “The immigrants are loving, caring, hardworking families,” she said. “They contribute to the fabric of our kitschy little campy town.”

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