As students go back to school, schools prepare for unaccompanied immigrant children

This post appeared in the National School Boards Association’s Legal Clips. Since this post came out, NSBA has also been featured on Fox News’ “Fox & Friends” and on NBC-owned local affiliates:

As reported in the USA Today, the arrival of 50,000 unaccompanied immigrant children since last fall is creating uncertainty among some school districts. “We haven’t started school yet, so we are all just holding our breaths to see what’s going to come on the first day of school,” said Caroline Woodason, assistant director of school support for Dalton Public Schools in Georgia. Georgia received more than 1,100 unaccompanied minors this year, as of July 7, according to the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR).

Under federal law, all children are entitled to a free public education, regardless of their immigration status. Public schools in states such as Florida, Texas and Georgia know the unaccompanied minors are already in their states, mainly from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. What they don’t know is how many will end up enrolling in their schools.

Last school year, Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland enrolled 107 unaccompanied minors and has “no expectations” about how many could enroll this school year, said school district spokesman Dana Tofig. Maryland saw more than 2,200 unaccompanied minors arrive this year, as of July 7, according to the ORR data.

“We don’t know the educational background (of the students), if they’ve even been to school, the language issue and operational issues that could raise costs beyond those raised initially through state funding,” said Francisco Negrón, General Counsel for the National School Boards Association.

The Department of Education did not provide USA TODAY Network with specifics on guidance to school districts. The agency has a team to take “inquiries received from the field” and identify resources for school districts, according to an e-mail from Dorie Nolt, DOE press secretary.

Enough Funding

School districts receive Title III funding under the No Child Left Behind Act for students with limited English proficiency. States can set aside up to 15% for districts that experience a “significant increase” in the number of immigrant students. Texas sets aside 6% of its Title III funding, or $5.9 million, said DeEtta Culbertson, spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency. New York sets aside 10.5% or $5.2 million and California sets aside 5% or $8 million, reports Education Week. But it’s unclear if the current school district budgets are enough.

Miami-Dade County School District requested additional federal funding last week to support what it expects to be a flood of new students. Miami is home to the country’s largest Honduran population, and in the last three months of the school year, the district enrolled 300 children from Honduras, said superintendent Alberto Carvalho. The district has plenty of English-as-second-language teachers, as well as relationships with local social services. But “there’s an unknown factor” of how new students will impact the district financially, Carvalho said. Miami-Dade estimates it spends an additional $1,959 in local funds on immigrant children, Carvalho said in a July 30 letter to Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz.

In addition to health screenings, students need social and psychological services because of the “dramatic conditions they left behind of violence or gang violence or poverty, coupled with what is often a traumatic experience during their journey,” Carvalho said.

“Newcomer Academy”

Using Title III funds, Dalton Public Schools in Georgia set up what it calls a “Newcomer Academy” this year when it saw that about 30 students needed English training. Last year, the district received $200,000 in Title III funding for its 1,800 English language learners, about a quarter of the overall student population, Woodason said.

Whitfield County Schools, also in Georgia, set up a similar academy over the summer. Last school year, the district enrolled 13 unaccompanied immigrant children from Guatemala and El Salvador. Most don’t speak Spanish but their native Mayan dialects, said Eric Beaver, spokeswoman for the school district, in an e-mail.

Source:  USA Today, 8/6/14, By Jolie Lee

[Editor’s Note:  In June 2014, Legal Clips summarized an article from The Star-Ledger, which reported that the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey had filed lawsuits against seven New Jersey school districts, alleging that the districts are discriminating against families on the basis of their immigration status. The suits charge that the districts are requiring government-issued identification from parents before they will enroll their children.

In February 2014, Legal Clips reported on the announcement by the Southern Poverty Law Center that it had filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice asking the department to conduct an investigation into two school districts in North Carolina, claiming that the districts discriminated against an immigrant child by denying, delaying, or discouraging enrollment. The complaint describes how “unaccompanied” immigrant children – who arrive in the United States without a parent or legal guardian and are placed in the care of a sponsor, such as a family member – were turned away from the schoolhouse door because of their limited English proficiency, age, or national origin.]

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