Immigrant surge slows, but challenges remain for schools

In the first eight months of fiscal year 2015, fewer than 18,000 unaccompanied minors arrived in the United States
By: | Issue: October, 2015
September 16, 2015

Despite fewer unaccompanied minors arriving from Central America, many U.S. K12 schools still struggle to adapt to the challenges of educating this diverse set of immigrant students.

During the 2014 fiscal year, the Department of Homeland Security reported that 57,496 unaccompanied minors arrived in the United States. In the first eight months of fiscal year 2015, the number dropped to fewer than 18,000.

“We’re seeing fewer numbers arrive than last year,” says Claire Sylvan, executive director of the Internationals Network for Public Schools, a nonprofit that works with districts to create schools for recently arrived immigrant youth. “The struggle this year is to keep the kids and keep them focused, and that requires us to focus on more than academic development.”

In districts expecting to enroll unaccompanied minors, staff professional development should include training on cultural understanding and identifying trauma, Sylvan says. For example, teachers can learn to integrate immigrant students’ languages and cultures into the classroom.

Diverse experiences

The recently-arrived students have had a variety of experiences in their new homes: Some arrive alone to meet parents living in the United States, while others are placed with sponsors they do not know. The Migration Policy Institute estimates that 39,000 unaccompanied minors will enter the United States this year.

“These students face significant difficulties, with many having interrupted formal education, little or no English proficiency, and having suffering the psychological effects of emotional trauma both before and during their journeys,” says Margie McHugh, director of the Migration Policy Institute’s National Center on Immigrant Integration Policy.

Many districts report that some immigrant high school students drop out when they realize how difficult earning a diploma on time will be, McHugh says.

“This is a population that will likely be here permanently,” McHugh says. “Ensuring that as many children as possible are being integrated into the mainstream curriculum with a real shot at achieving a high school diploma is incredibly important to the long-term integration of these children in local communities.”

District services

No federal funding exists for immigrant students, leaving states and local districts to carry the financial weight. School districts are the largest and most structured system these students will enter, and are therefore the key service providers in the months after arrival, McHugh says.

For successful integration, districts need to:

Build partnerships with service providers, including health and mental health care. For example, Queens College provided Flushing International High School in New York City with psychologists-in-training to run group sessions.
Assign one person, possibly a school counselor, to track attendance and performance, and check whether students can access health care. •
Find lawyers willing to help students navigate the citizenship process.
Provide Spanish-language high school-equivalency programs or adult ed services for students who choose not to complete a formal curriculum.

“These kids can do well if there is a welcoming environment and enough structured support for them,” Sylvan says. “They can be ambassadors for a global perspective that is critical for all kids in today’s world.” ÑA.D.