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For the many unaccompanied minors who have crossed into the United States from Central America fleeing violence and poverty, most end up waiting months, or even years, as their cases go through court. While they wait for the backlogged immigration system to address their claims to stay in the U.S., they enroll in school. The NewsHour’s April Brown reports on how Florida educators are responding.
As tens of thousands of children have crossed the U.S.-Mexico border in recent months, many of them fleeing violence and poverty in Central America, there have been a lot of questions about what will happen to them.
But, even as they wait for their day in immigration court, many have enrolled in school.
The NewsHour's April Brown looks at the challenges schools and districts are facing. Her report is part of our American Graduate project.
At the beginning of the school year, Miami's Riverside Elementary was already beyond capacity, and then, says principal Erica Paramore-Respress, more and more students kept showing up to enroll.
ERICA PARAMORE-RESPRESS, Principal, Riverside Elementary School:
Every day, literally, we have students that are registering. And some are from the neighborhood and some are from other places outside of the state that, but more recently outside of the country, specifically Central America.
More than 70 new students from Central America signed up here over the summer and during the first two weeks of school. Officials assume many of them arrived in the wave of unaccompanied minors that recently washed over this country and are awaiting a hearing in immigration court. While they wait, they go to school.
And, according to federal law, schools are not allowed to ask about students' immigration status. That makes it tough to plan ahead.
How many of you are from Honduras? Please raise your hands.
Many of the new arrivals from this school may have fled drug gangs and violence in Honduras. Belkis Arias arrived from that country a couple of month ago.
BELKIS ARIAS (through interpreter):
It's a little difficult to understand the people who speak English, but I like it here.
Like many other kids who just started at Riverside, Belkis doesn't speak English. And that makes teaching lessons more time-consuming. All Riverside instructors know how to teach English as a second language. That's not true at all schools here, but a district-wide problem is finding space for all the extra students.
We have utilized every single space imaginable here in the building. And the only other way that we can continue to grow at this rate is to implement a co-teaching model which puts two teachers in one classroom. And even that has limitations because there are some classrooms that it's just not physically possible to house two teachers in one classroom.
Miami-Dade is the fourth largest district in the country, and it estimates it costs an extra $2,000 per year to provide additional help to each foreign-born student.
This year, the federal government gave Miami-Dade a $3.4 million grant to address those costs. But Superintendent Alberto Carvalho says it's not enough to fund special services for the thousands of new arrivals from Latin America.
ALBERTO CARVALHO, Superintendent, Miami-Dade County School District:
They're all arriving poor, facing English language limitations that are very serious, and many of them arriving are facing social and psychological needs, no doubt because of the conditions they left behind in their countries, as well as the very harrowing and traumatic journey through Mexico before crossing the border.
Oscar is one of the children. He was 12 when he made the journey from Honduras to the United States with his 17-year-old sister, Melissa. Honduras has the highest murder rate in the world and is among the poorest countries in Latin America. Criminal gangs had threatened them both.
STUDENT (through interpreter):
He threatened to rape me or hurt us or do other terrible things if we didn't cooperate with them.
I also came for a reason, the drug traffickers, the crime. The traffickers were looking for kids to smuggle drugs into other countries.
Melissa and Oscar have asked us not to use their real names and they say the decision to flee their country was an easy one.
I had to do it because I had no other option. If I didn't leave my country, I don't know what would have happened to me or my brother.
Whether we're talking about the Mariel boatlift particularly involving Cuba or more recently after hurricanes or earthquake destruction in Haiti, the fact that we pick up hundreds, if not thousands of children. So we know how to do this.
That experience will help Miami-Dade cope with the latest influx of children, but time may test its endurance because the kids may be here quite a while.
Melissa and Oscar, for example, were quickly apprehended when they crossed the border into Texas and were eventually released to a family member in Miami. They were fortunate to find a pro bono attorney to help them make the case for staying in the U.S. But even that may not speed things up.
Cheryl Little is the executive director of the South Florida nonprofit Americans for Immigrant Justice.
CHERYL LITTLE, Americans for Immigrant Justice: Cases have been backlogged for years. I mean, I think that the number now is something like 375,000 backlogged cases. We have clients who have waited years and years for their day in court. Obviously, that has to change.
Back at Riverside, the mood is upbeat, as the school for more students to arrive. They are trying to manage larger class sizes by having teachers become specialists.
So, we have one teachers who is responsible for the reading and social studies and writing, and then the other responsible for the science and the math. So you become an expert in fewer subjects, even though you have a larger amount of students.
And, sometimes, they have children lead discussions. But the principal says that before anything can be taught:
We need to make sure that everybody's safe, that there is a place that is for learning. And that sets the tone, that sets the groundwork. And when these kids come in, they need to know we're not really concerned about your immigration status. It matters not. We want you to come in and we want to teach you.
And she says that the school will continue to welcome new students, no matter where they come from.
American Graduate is a public media initiative funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
On Saturday, most PBS stations will mark American Graduate Day with a special broadcast, featuring Education Secretary Arne Duncan, celebrities like Tony Bennett and actress Allison Williams, and many others making a difference in the lives of young people.
This story and PBS NewsHour education coverage is part of American Graduate: Let's Make it Happen, a public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
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