Nearly 300 unaccompanied children from Central America have at least temporarily settled in Baton Rouge since the summer and find themselves in a school system ill prepared for the sudden influx of non-English speaking students.
East Baton Rouge Parish public school officials spent the opening weeks of the school year filling English as a second language teaching spots, but vacancies remain. The school system is also advertising a handful of new positions for “coaches” who will travel from school to school to help students often bewildered by their new language and new school environments.
In some cases, they are new to school, period.
“You have students who are behind in their own language, and they are learning in English,” said Michael Haggen, deputy superintendent for innovation and reform.
The school system is experimenting on the fly as it strives to meet the educational needs of these students. School administrators estimate it could cost almost $1 million to do so, with little chance at present of any federal or state financial relief. To help bridge the gap, LSU students are being signed as volunteer Spanish language translators.
And the flow of new students, while much stemmed, has not stopped.
Antony Blanco, 15, crossed the U.S. border when the immigration wave was at its crest this summer. Now, a student at Broadmoor High School in Baton Rouge, he is trying to adjust to his new home.
With the high school’s ESL coordinator Alina Miron serving as translator, Blanco explained that he left rural El Salvador after his grandfather died. He had to leave his grandmother behind to reunite with his parents who were already in Baton Rouge.
School back home was difficult to get to — no public transportation forced him to walk for miles to get to and from school. And the school day was three hours long. He became a target of taunts from the local gangs that have beset his country and others, fueling this immigration wave.
“They weren’t death threats, but they hit him and threatened to do things very bad to him,” Miron said.
At Broadmoor High, he said the instruction is better, and he’s impressed by the greater availability of technology. But he has made friends so far only with the other Hispanic students, who number at 110 currently, less than a tenth of the almost 1,300 students at the school. The other students often make fun of him, he said.
“Whenever the teacher tells him to do something, he doesn’t understand and he won’t do anything, and they’ll laugh at him,” Miron translated.
Miron works to help new students like Blanco acclimate to their new home. She spends much of the day floating from class to class, assisting other teachers. Once a day, though, she teaches the students directly in her ESL class, working with those who are having the greatest difficulty with English.
A native of Romania, Miron speaks several languages fluently including English and Spanish. In her ESL class, she mostly sticks to English and expects the students to do the same, occasionally rescuing them with hints in Spanish.
In one exercise, students are given English sentences that are missing the words “a” or “an.” She asks them to write down whether they think an “a” or an “an” is required. Then she asks them to not only write out the complete sentence on the whiteboard but to read it aloud.
“This is an new cat,” one boy writes.
His fellow students quickly jump into correct him until he writes, “This is a new car.”
The class had 14 kids that day, but a 15th, another boy, showed up, brand new to the school and to the country.
“In Honduras, he told me he went to 11th grade, but he didn’t bring anything from that school, so we have to put him in ninth grade,” Miron said.
The need to learn English is obvious, but it’s easier said than done.
Miguel Ruiz, 14, newly arrived from Monterey, Mexico, is learning the language quickly, but says he gets frustrated at times.
“He doesn’t like the rules, the structure, the grammar, because he’s sometimes he gets confused,” Miron said.
Echoing her classmates, Kleiner Garcia, who came to United States more than a year ago from Honduras, would like to write more in English, rather than drilling as much on vocabulary on learn and repeating things said aloud.
Miron said she integrates oral and writing exercises as best she can. She said she’s heard such complaints before.
“They are having all the same problems everyone else in their position has,” she said.
These newcomers to Baton Rouge are sponsored by blood relatives who already live in the United States, but not necessarily their parents, while they await a determination by authorities as to whether they can stay. Children without relatives already in the country are placed in group homes, although there are no group homes for such children in Louisiana at present.
“The children are here legally, something a lot of people miss,” said David Aguillard, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Baton Rouge.
A federal law passed in 2008 gives substantial rights and protections to unaccompanied children from countries that do not share a common border with the United States.
The temporary legal status of such children may change, however, if they don’t show up for their future court dates, and they are much less likely to do so if they don’t have a lawyer.
Aguillard said his office reviewed 386 cases closed between 2007 and 2013, finding that children who had legal representation were far more likely to win the right to legally stay in the country, or to voluntarily leave early and preserve their right to return at a later date.
Aguillard said his office estimates that 80 percent of the latest children to come here won’t have an attorney representing them.
To help pay for legal representation for this wave of unaccompanied children, Catholic Charities is trying to raise $2 million as part of what it’s calling the Louisiana Esperanza Project. Esperanza is the Spanish word for hope. So far, the charitable group has raised only about $350,000.
For now, these children are in school and school officials are barred from asking them about the immigration status. They focus instead on trying to help the students become accustomed to public education in the United States.
“When they get here, they feel like everything is new, new regulations, new country,” she said.
They will wander off campus or spend too much time in the bathroom only to find they’ve violated a school rule they had no idea existed, Miron said.
“They don’t understand why they are suspended,” she said. “They have to adapt to life here. It’s very different.”
Miron said the high school is responding well all things considered but can always use more help. The school’s ESL population has increased from about 90 to 130 students since last year. About eight out of 10 are native Spanish speakers, but there are also Vietnamese, Filipino, Congolese and Indian students.
Many of the incoming children have little in the way of formal education, which poses a major challenge for the school system. For instance, Miron said, she has one new teenage student functioning at the level of a third-grader.
In a school district like East Baton Rouge Parish, filled with schools with C and D letter grade, small drops in test scores could put schools in jeopardy of state sanctions and potentially on a track for state takeover. After a year in school, the students will have to take state tests, and some have already been in school briefly in other states, so the clock is ticking.
One strategy involves a return to something it dropped a few years ago. It involved designating a few schools as centers for students learning English. But with such students topping 5 percent of all students in the system, the centers are being reconstituted in new locations and incoming students are being routed to “welcome classes” where their issues are focused on intently.
Deputy Superintendent Haggen said it’s working well … too well.
“It’s so successful. The kids are hearing about it and more are registering,” Haggen said, “and we don’t have teachers to teach them.”