The group of mostly Spanish-speaking teenage boys with styled spiky hair and high-top sneakers enthusiastically pecks away on hand-held tablets at the G.W. Carver Education Center, pausing to alert the teacher when stumped.
The students are eager but face barriers. Many crossed the U.S. border. Some can barely read or write in their native language.
U.S. schools are now dealing with the fallout from the dramatic spike in the number of children and teenagers who crossed into the United States unaccompanied by family; the Supreme Court has ruled that they have an obligation to educate all students regardless of their immigration status.
The teenagers at the G.W. Education Center ride a school bus, practice food names with the school cafeteria manager and recite the names of body parts in gym class — all part of an English immersion newcomers program. The Indian River School District scrambled to develop it after about 70 immigrant students, most from Guatemala, enrolled unexpectedly toward the end of the last school year.
The district’s goal is to get them assimilated, and after a semester or more, if necessary, back into a regular high school. There, they can earn a diploma, even if that means participating in adult education programs and going to school until they are 21.
“They just crave it, and they will come and ask questions,” said Lori Ott, their English language teacher, after her students cheerfully waved goodbye for the day. “How do you say this? And, how do you say that? They just participate and you can’t say enough about them.”
Large numbers of these students have moved to metropolitan areas such as Washington, D.C., Miami and Houston, but also to communities of all sizes in nearly every state, according to federal data. That’s because most typically go live with a relative or guardian while their case makes its way through the immigration courts system — a process that can take years.
In Delaware’s Sussex County, the community long has attracted immigrants, partly because of work in chicken factories, and soybean and corn fields. The district’s population is more than one-quarter Hispanic, and for years has offered an early learning program for non-English speakers.
Still, officials were caught off guard by the number of new students — part of the wave of unaccompanied minors crossing the border — enrolling last year, mostly at Sussex Central High School.
Donald Hattier, a school board member, said advance warning would have helped with planning. The federal government, he said, “just dropped this on us.” He wonders what’s next.
The kids are still coming across the border. This problem has not been solved,” Hattier said.
Educators in Delaware and elsewhere say many of these students, who fled poverty and violence, have yearslong gaps in schooling. For teenagers, learning in English can prove more difficult than for younger students. They also may be living with relatives or others they didn’t know, and the workings of an American school can be confusing.
Others experienced trauma, either in their home country or while crossing the border, and may need mental health help.
“It’s a new culture and they already feel that they are alone. … Some of them don’t have their parents here,” said English language instructor Alina Miron at Broadmoor High School in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The school has about a dozen of these students enrolled
In districts such as Miron’s, the influx has meant hiring new English language instructors. The Delaware district is creating special classes to more quickly assimilate these students.
Two foundations donated money to the Oakland Unified School District in California to help fund a person to connect about 150 unaccompanied students with legal and social services; many didn’t have legal representation at immigration hearings.
“We feel that we have moral obligation to serve these students as long as they are in the United States,” said Troy Flint, a district spokesman. “Until their fate is decided, we’re responsible for ensuring they get an education and we embrace that opportunity.”
In Louisiana, the Broadmoor principal, Shalonda Simoneaux, said attending high school and learning English is a motivating factor for teenagers who want “want to blend in.”
“Whatever is being said, whatever is going on, they are really learning more from listening from other teenagers, even more so than from the teachers because it’s high school,” Simoneaux said.
For cash-strapped districts, providing for these students’ needs can be arduous, particularly if they arrive after student headcounts are taken to determine school funding.
In Miami, the school board voted to seek federal help at the urging of Superintendent Alberto Carvalho after 300 foreign-born students, many from Honduras and traveling alone, enrolled toward the end of the last school year.
Margie McHugh, director of the nonprofit Migration Policy Institute’s National Center on Immigrant Integration, says it’s critical that children given permission to stay in the United States are integrated into American life and are educated.
Indian River School District officials say that’s their plan.
“We do have a very open heart and an open mind and any student who comes in our system, we’re going to give the most appropriate services that we can,” said the Delaware district’s superintendent, Susan Bunting.