Meza to step down as Jefferson schools superintendent in September _lowres

Advocate file photo by ELIOT KAMENITZ -- Jefferson Parish Schools Superintendent James Meza has to manage growth of nearly 1.500 more students than from 2013 school year.

Enrollment at Jefferson Parish’s public schools swelled by almost 1,500 students in the current school year, with the lion’s share of the increase coming from Hispanic children — mostly Honduran — who came to the New Orleans area this summer after fleeing their strife-ridden Central American communities.

The enrollment figures, which are reported twice a year to the state, indicate that the Jefferson school system added 1,467 students and has a total 2014-15 enrollment of 48,126, an increase of 3 percent.

Superintendent James Meza said that while 20 percent of the increase can be attributed to two new charter schools in the system, about 1,200 of the students are enrolled in the English Language Learners program and are predominantly Hispanic.

“A lot of our schools, especially in Kenner and Metairie, have seen increases,” agreed Karina Castillo, executive director of the English Language Learners program.

The increase swelled the ELL’s ranks to 5,634, an increase of 28 percent.

The influx grabbed headlines this summer as thousands of children, many of them on their own, fled Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, which have increasingly come under the grip of gangs that terrorize civilians with violence and extortion.

The children taken in by the federal Immigration and Naturalization Service were placed with relatives, and many came to the New Orleans area because of its large Honduran population.

Louisiana ranked ninth among the states taking in the refugee children, and the ones that came remain here in limbo as they are being processed through an already backlogged system.

Castillo said East Jefferson absorbed more of the students than West Jefferson, though specific numbers were not available Wednesday afternoon.

She said the system added some English as a Second Language staff to the schools earlier this year in response. But she noted the school system is in the early stages of a restructuring that will put more money and resources into the ELL program — a process that already had been plotted out before the influx this summer.

According to data compiled last year by the New Orleans Community Data Center, Kenner and Metairie already had the highest concentration of Hispanics in the metro area, at 21 percent of those communities’ population.

Meza said Jefferson Parish’s percentage of Spanish-speaking students is at least four times as large as the state average.

“It’s been rising steadily for the last two years, and the district has tried more and more to put more resources into serving these students,” said Tina Chong, the system’s spokeswoman.

In the coming months, the Jefferson school system will put about $1 million into the English Language Learners program to try to raise its students’ test scores to the level of English-speaking students by 2018, hiring more teachers, support specialists, social workers and an interpreter.

The plan also calls for an immigrant welcome center to work more closely with students’ families.

The School Board also has approved a plan to offer bonuses and stipends to teachers and staff who speak Spanish, Vietnamese and Arabic to help boost recruitment.

Follow Chad Calder on Twitter, @Chad_Calder.