ANNAPOLIS — In July, she came on foot and by bus, traversing thousands of miles on a harrowing month-long journey through Mexico to the United States.
She had hoped to come legally — but, threatened by gangs in El Salvador, 18-year-old Yanci said she was forced to flee.
Now a student at Northwestern High School in Hyattsville, Yanci is one of thousands of Central American “unaccompanied minors” finding a new home in Maryland’s Prince George’s and Montgomery counties. Since August, most of the minors who came to Maryland over the summer — often to escape gang violence in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador — moved into the two jurisdictions.
As alarm over the influx quieted in September when numbers slowed, school systems took up the challenge of educating the non-English-speaking, often-traumatized youth.
CNS is withholding students’ last names in this story due to privacy concerns and school confidentiality codes.
Maryland received 3,301 minors by Sept. 30 — the sixth-most nationwide — and Montgomery and Prince George’s counties took in more than 2,000, U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement statistics show.
Most moved in with friends or family in longstanding Central American immigrant enclaves that are battling poverty, low education rates and gangs.
School enrollment is required to maintain immigration status. In Prince George’s County schools, more “unaccompanied or homeless youth” registered through November of this school year than all of the last school year. In one year, Montgomery County saw a two- to three-fold increase in the number of Central American students.
The dramatic spike has strained school resources, causing program waitlists, bigger classes and longer hours — and schools say they need more staff, mental health services and parent outreach to tackle the group’s challenges.
“When you’re in a new language, new cultural environment, everything is new… a lot of newcomers can walk around just being shell-shocked,” said Karen Woodson, director of Montgomery County’s ESOL/Bilingual Programs. “The children are fleeing violence in their home countries… many of them may have had traumatic journeys crossing the border — you’re dealing with a student that has tremendous need.”
“TOO MUCH WORK”
In a large, chattering classroom in Prince George’s County’s Northwestern High School in mid-November, one ESOL teacher called her class to order.
“Guys, lápiz down, she said. “Ojos on me.”
Colorful sticky notes on a wall map labeled each student’s origins: those from El Salvador spilled off the sheet.
It was a “newcomer” class in the English for Speakers of Other Languages, or ESOL, program, which teaches international students language along with academics.
Across the hall, ESOL teacher Sue Donegan said her class had grown from 12 to 23, reflecting Prince George’s 4,852 new international students and English language learners who enrolled between April and October. About 40,000 international students were enrolled in the county by the end of October. The county enrolled 5,550 new students over the entire 2011-2012 school year, and 7,628 in 2013-2014.
At Northwestern, with 550 ESOL students, some gym and art classes were cut because so many students couldn’t understand their teachers, school ESOL chair William Melvin said.
Both counties’ ESOL programs received more federal funds this fiscal year than last – Prince George’s received $337,029 more, a 14 percent gain – but since funds were based on last year’s enrollment, officials said resources were “tight.”
Prince George’s new “school-based budgeting,” which frees principals to use ESOL funds elsewhere, also creates uncertainties.
Over the summer, Prince George’s International Student Counseling Office increased hours and staff to register students, but now, “you’ve got equal or (fewer) counselors doing intake for more families, and it’s too much work,” said outreach counselor Patricia Chiancone.
She added that made it difficult to plan or implement programs necessary to help the unique group of students.
Still, schools have responded as best they could, enhancing staff professional development programs centered on Spanish skills and training on the kids’ unique challenges.
Prince George’s County counselors and principals received training on Hispanic immigrants, and the county is expanding its 15-week “Spanish for Staff” language program from one school last year to five or six schools this year, Chiancone said.
Montgomery County is crafting an “unaccompanied minors toolkit” to include lesson plans representing immigrant children’s cultures and teacher strategies to encourage the new students.
“THIS NEW PERSON CALLED ‘MOM’”
But three months into the school year, educators said schools need more staff training on issues of family reunification and dealing with students battling trauma.
Many children were reunited with parents they hadn’t seen in 10 to 15 years, so most crises stem back to “leaving their grandparents in their country and not feeling comfortable with this new person called ‘mom,’” Northwestern High School ESOL counselor Meg Evans-Headley said.
“A lot of times, schools say, ‘oh, we’re going to call you into a meeting about your kid,’ and you’re sitting there, and the kid’s sitting there, and there is clearly a problem between you,” Chiancone said. “You feel like you’re an incompetent parent, and the kid feels like oh, you don’t love them, because in the first place you abandoned them.”
Chiancone often learns of family problems when leading emotional development activities with newcomer groups.
“At first, I felt happy because I came to know my mom and dad, and I had 15 years of not knowing them,” she read from one child’s response paper. “But I felt bad, because I left my grandma in my country, and it was with her that I was brought up. And when I got here, I had serious problems with my dad — and it was horrible; he treated me very badly.”
Prince George’s County is holding a new program for parents on how the school system works and will implement another focused on family reunification, Chiancone said.
Lack of strong parent-child relationships made the teacher-student one even more important: “A lot of the times they really depend on the teacher,” Chiancone said.
BATTLING TRAUMA, SCHOOLING GAPS
Educators said students needed more mental health services to help newcomers battling emotional issues or post-traumatic stress disorder.
Some students expressed suicidal thoughts, Chiancone said. She knew an 11-year-old who witnessed his father’s murder in Central America after he refused to pay gangs. She’d heard of another kidnapped at home and then tortured on his journey.
Most of the kids have suffered trauma, even once they arrive, Melvin said.
“You see a mark in an arm and they say – ‘oh, I fell,’ and then you push them a little harder — ‘oh, my mom grabbed me, and then, well, she tried to kill me; she threw a knife and missed me,’” he said. “Then we hold them and call the police and try to deal with it.”
Schools send students identified with such issues to talk with social service workers and counselors. Four county high schools have “wellness centers,” which provide physical health treatment and mental health counseling.
But an intensive Montgomery County program for newcomers that includes mental health counseling, the Multidisciplinary Educational Training and Support program, was overwhelmed with a 37-student waitlist this fall before the county eventually hired two new teachers.
Challenges deepen with students’ varying education levels: Many have missed years of school, especially in areas where gangs block safe access, Chiancone said.
Last class period on a November Friday afternoon, Northwestern ESOL teacher Barbara Cook surveyed her loud class working on an exercise to learn American textbook layout: glossaries, indexes, chapter titles.
It was hard to catch up new students to the rest of the class. “They may have gone up to ninth grade, but the schools are in rural areas and the education level is not the same,” Cook said.
Other students struggle balancing school with work. Northwestern student Alan J. immigrated last year to send money back to his ill mother in Guatemala, so he hadn’t started school until this fall.
Another student, 18-year-old Junior, said he fled Honduras because he’d been in a motorcycle accident and the other driver wanted to kill him.
But now, his favorite part of the United States is “la escuela”: school. He hopes to stay in the U.S. and go to college.
“I’m learning a whole lot, and it’s going to help me,” he said through a translator.
Despite the challenges, Woodson said educators shared a “collective responsibility” to give each child a “fair shot.”
“Many students are with Grandma out in the countryside one day, and then the next day on a 1,300-mile journey to the U.S.,” she said. “A couple weeks later, you’re in a 21st century bustling high school. The change is just so great it takes their breath away. They need someone to help process that and get them acculturated to this new environment.”