Miami Struggles To Embrace Unaccompanied Immigrants

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School districts are beginning to cope with the recent influx of new students from Central America. Many have little education and most are just beginning to learn English.


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer. As the school year gets underway across the country, many of the students are new - not just to the schools, but to the United States. The Obama administration says so far this year, it's processed nearly 40,000 unaccompanied children from Central America. Now school districts are scrambling to welcome the children and assess their educational needs. From Miami, NPR's Greg Allen reports.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: With more than 60,000 students, Miami-Dade County is one of the nation's largest school districts and one with a long history of educating newcomers to the U.S.

ARMANDO GUZMAN: Everybody - I am a teacher.


GUZMAN: We are students.


ALLEN: It's the second week of school at Miami Jackson Senior High School. And for some of the students, their first lesson is in English. This is teacher Armando Guzman's first level English-for-speakers-of-other-languages, or ESL, class. It's one of six new ESL classes added this year. Next door, there's another level one class so new that it doesn't yet have a permanent teacher. In the meantime, there's a substitute with an appropriate last name. Shaquetta English is putting the students through their paces.

SHAQUETTA ENGLISH: Say it again. I have...


ENGLISH: ...One...


ENGLISH: ...Backpack.


ALLEN: Observing it all in the back of the room is Miami Jackson's principal, Carlos Rios.

PRINCIPAL CARLOS RIOS: These kids basically all been here within a couple months.

ALLEN: Yeah?

RIOS: Yeah. I mean, I think the long - the one that's been here the longest has been three months. And we had one just entered a week ago.

ALLEN: Most of the newly arrived students at Miami Jackson are from Central America. Part of the influx of unaccompanied minors began showing up last year at the U.S.-Mexico border. After being detained by immigration officials, most were released to the care of relatives or friends. The largest numbers of migrant children are now clustered in Los Angeles, Houston, the Washington, D.C. area and South Florida where school is just getting underway.

In the last several weeks, the Miami-Dade School District has enrolled about 1,400 children from Central America - that's 800 more than it enrolled last year. Rios says 170 of them are at Miami Jackson.

RIOS: Obviously the first week of school saw, you know, about 100 students come in. And it hasn't stopped. And they're - you see the office out there. There are still parents coming in. There are still students coming in.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Spanish spoken).

ALLEN: In the hallway, Rios chats with some of his new students. First stop for the new students is Miami Jackson's language lab. Sylvia Quinonez has been assessing their language skills and educational level.

SYLVIA QUINONEZ: Mostly level ones - no English - some good background education where the language would be just the issue. And some with very little education where it's a bigger battle.

ALLEN: Many of the newcomers from Central America are living with family members who've already put down roots here in Miami. Kevin Caballero is a 15-year-old who's living with his father.

KEVIN CABALLERO: I came from Honduras and, like, six months ago I came here. And I entered at school yesterday.

ALLEN: Because he went to a bilingual school in his home country, Caballero speaks a little English. But he's more comfortable in Spanish. With Quinonez interpreting, he says he left because of gang violence.

CABALLERO: (Spanish spoken).

QUINONEZ: The parents were afraid because things aren't that great in Honduras, and they would go to school with fear.

ALLEN: Lauren Najera is another student who recently arrived from Honduras. She's 17, but comes with just the fifth grade education. She left home in Juticalpa after her uncle was gunned down by gangs. After taking a bus, she says, she crossed the border with an older cousin.

LAUREN NAJERA: (Spanish spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: When they got to Mexico, she says that, I guess, they were going to attempt rape, and the cousin protected her from that situation. That's scary.

ALLEN: Najera is now reunited with her mother in Miami. Like Caballero and nearly all the recent arrivals, she's waiting for an immigration hearing which will determine how long she can stay in the U.S. But as students, immigration status isn't a concern for Sylvia Quinonez and the other teachers at Miami Jackson. For the newcomers, Quinonez says, she has a message she repeats often in the school's hallways.

QUINONEZ: And I'll pass by, and I'll say English. You need to practice your English.

ALLEN: The Miami-Dade School District has a history of educating students newly arrived in the U.S. It began in the 60s with Cubans and has continued since then with Asians, Dominicans and Venezuelans, among others. After a busy several weeks at Miami Jackson, the numbers of new students from Central America appear to be tapering off. Quinonez says we 're waiting for the next wave. Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.

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