What It Looks Like When Every Kid In The Class Is A Recent Child Migrant

A map showing where students come from in the back of a New Arrivals Center classroom. CREDIT: ESTHER Y. LEE
A map showing where students come from in the back of a New Arrivals Center classroom. CREDIT: ESTHER Y. LEE

This is the third in a series of pieces from ThinkProgress chronicling the struggles of immigrant life in Southern California along the U.S.-Mexico border. You can find the other pieces here and here.

SAN DIEGO, CA — The bell rings at 7:25 a.m. and about 20 high-school students file into Isabel Sandoval’s English as a Second language classroom to take their seats. Out of backpacks spill folders, paper, pencils, and erasers. Students take out last night’s homework assignment: a two- to three-sentence autobiography. Sandoval calls for volunteers to read their pieces: papers rustle, throats clear, and hands go up. Testing at least 60 days of intensive English language learning, a 15-year-old teenager from Honduras hesitantly raises his hand and reads his work, rounding his mouth to draw out the vowel in every word, “I came to the United States by walking and [sic] car. My family came to [sic] United States because we want a better life.”

Sandoval smiles, prompting the teen to nudge his seat partner to raise his hand. Sandoval catches the playful look between the two friends and calls on the second teen to read his homework out loud. “My name is [inaudible],” he nervously says. “I am 16 years old. I was born in Guatemala. My family travel [sic] to the United States by walking. My family come [sic] to the United States because we are running [sic] away from the gang.”

The two teens in Sandoval’s class are part of the wave of migrants who have been fleeing Central America since at least 2011, with many escaping gang violence and poverty. For children awaiting their court appearances in front of an immigration judge, many enroll in public schools because of a 1982 Supreme Court ruling that held schools cannot deny public education to undocumented immigrants on account of their legal status.

Across the nation, English immersion teachers like Sandoval saw an uptick in foreign student enrollment last year, due in part to the 53,518 Latin American children who were released to sponsors, generally parents or relatives, in the United States between October 2013 and September 2014. But few cities have seen as steady a stream of young immigrant children into its school system as San Diego, which has been enrolling this population long before last summer’s influx.

At San Diego’s Hoover High School where some 598 of its 1,994 student population are English learners, a stand-alone English-language immersion program known as the New Arrival Center (NAC) provides a rare window into the lives of these immigrants. Four teachers, including Sandoval and Eliza Getch, serve as equal parts language instructors and psychological support system for 80 NAC students making the transition from their home countries to the academic rigor of an American high school. And inside these classrooms focused on developing acculturation skills, kids find a place of sanctuary, where they are encouraged to talk openly about their migration stories.

‘They come here alone’

Lowering her voice from the back of Sandoval’s classroom, Sally Johnson, a resource teacher at Hoover High’s Office of Language Acquisition, said that it’s not uncommon for ESL teachers to go to the homes of their students after a loved one in another country passes away. Due to a lack of legal status, some of those students are unable to go back to their home countries, so they rely on their teachers and fellow students as a surrogate source to express grief.

“Teachers lead the charge with home visits,” Johnson said. “There was a tragedy with one family and two of the teachers went to the families and participated in their cultural rituals. When someone dies, they participated in the grieving process. They really are invested. It’s a heartfelt job.”

“When we see that they have other issues like PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder], we refer them to a social worker on-site and they get therapy sessions through them,” Sandoval said, later stating that teachers are just “step one” when they “think there is something else going on that we can’t pinpoint.”

Johnson pointed out some students in Sandoval’s classroom were seated “strategically so that they can use primary language as support. They are very welcome here.” There wasn’t one general rationale for the strategy, though it seemed clear that quieter students were paired with boisterous and outwardly happy students, or students were paired by their shared experience leaving their home countries. At one particular table, a Honduran teen was partnered with a Guatemalan teen, both of whom “walked” across the southern border.

These are kids with ‘a lot of gaps’

Learning English is just one of several hurdles for students to overcome and teachers to pinpoint during the school year. Students at Hoover High are placed in classes based on their skills, not their age. An Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugee report found that children from the three Central American countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras often stop formal education after the sixth grade either to take jobs to support their families or by gang intimidation. “There are some kids with a lot of gaps who need to go back to the basics,” Getch admitted. “A big part of their success is their own motivation, their own perseverance.” As a case in point, ThinkProgress spoke with two Guatemalan teens now in the San Diego school system who dropped out of school in their home countries because of gang violence. Language barriers aside, those two teens found it difficult to catch up to their American peers not only because they lost time undertaking their border crossing, but because their school had fallen into gang territory.

Other emotional issues prove problematic for academic success: some grow resentful of adult sponsors that they haven’t seen in years who started new families in their absence. And even the uncertainty of not knowing their fates in front of an immigration judge until they show up at their court date could weigh on students — an issue that could become increasingly common now that the Department of Justice began prioritizing their cases above other immigration cases since July 2014. Out of 41,522 juveniles presented in front of an immigration judge in the 2014 fiscal year, 7,032 were given removal orders, the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University reported.

Isabel Sandoval, New Arrivals Center teacher CREDIT: Jack Jenkins
Isabel Sandoval, New Arrivals Center teacher CREDIT: Jack Jenkins

Hoover High School administrators are prepared, at least for mental traumas. Though the NAC program officially began in 2008, San Diego is no stranger to prior waves of immigrant children, generally from Latin America. Its English language immersion teachers, who find themselves dealing with students with processing similar issues, often use the classroom as informal therapy sessions to make students feel welcome and to regain identities lost when they left their countries. Student-written essays on migration and career goals are proudly displayed around both Sandoval and Getch’s classrooms, a barometer of student struggles, but also an insight into how open students feel around teachers and classmates. One assignment in particular required students to write about how their friends entered the country. Those essays are stapled against a map showing where students are from in the back wall of one teacher’s classroom.

Even while meeting statewide education expectations, both Sandoval and Getch said that they make assignments personally relevant. Sandoval said, “We have curriculum sets, but a lot of it has to do with their experiences. We try and get their experiences into the curriculum because then they say, ‘oh yea, me too.’”

Mary Waldron, ‎the director at the Office of Language Acquisition at San Diego Unified School District explained that NAC helps to build self-confidence in the students by establishing routines, an experience which “begins to soften, perhaps, any trauma that students had to get to this country.” But studies have shown that about 80 percent of people who have PTSD may still carry their experiences with them in the form of an anxiety disorder, major depressive disorder, or other conditions. Waldron said, “The reality is that the effect of that trauma is going to be long-lasting.”

Jack Jenkins contributed to this report.