Tighter Border Helping Schools

Karina Bland, Arizona Republic, Dec. 21, 2005

Tighter security at the Arizona-Mexico border is having an unintended consequence: More Valley children are back in their seats when school resumes after winter break.

In the past few years, Phoenix principals say fewer families seem willing to take their annual Christmas trek to Mexico if they aren’t here legally. Those trips home mean that children often aren’t able to get back to school on time, and sometimes not at all, school administrators say.

Every year at this time, principals launch campaigns to get all children back to school after the holidays, sending out reminders about when classes end and start again for winter break. At most schools, the break starts Friday and ends Jan. 9.

While school officials want students to share the holidays with family, they don’t want them to miss school, says Sara Bresnahan, spokeswoman for the Phoenix Elementary School District, where more than 95 percent of students are minorities, mostly Hispanic.

Three years ago, principals could expect to be missing as many as 30 children after winter break; now they say it likely will be fewer than a dozen.

Most children who go to Mexico for Christmas are back in school on time. Others who have difficulty getting across the border because, even if they are U.S. citizens, their parents may not be, are gone longer. Some miss a few extra days; others don’t make it back for weeks. Some never return.

Come Jan. 9, the principals say they will keep their fingers crossed that the children who should be in those empty seats, wherever they are, are safe.

There’s reason to worry, says Sean King of the Border Patrol in Tucson. Crossing the border illegally is not safe for anyone, he says, let alone children, whether they trek through the desert or ride in the back of a truck.

King confirms that fewer families seem to try to cross illegally at Christmas. Tightened security at the border in recent years means they’re more likely to get caught.

“We are seeing less and less now because it is hard to get back,” he says.

In December 2004, about 17,000 people, some children, were caught crossing the border illegally. The number of people climbs to 35,000 in January and 45,000 in February as the weather warms.

In Mexico, the holidays are about family, friends and religion. Every December, thousands of Hispanics return to Mexico for Christmas.

“Family is a very strong tie,” says John Ewing, principal of Phoenix Preparatory Academy, where he has 1,200 students. “They’re going to do whatever they can to make it back to see relatives.”

He has worked at inner-city schools for more than 30 years and watched this phenomenon wane in recent years as border security increased. Ewing expects to have 20 or so students that he can’t account for when school resumes. Often, he hears from other students that a child is still in Mexico.

“You hate for them to miss school,” Ewing says.

If students miss even a few days of school, they can fall behind, particularly if they are learning English, says Shirley Johnson, principal of Phoenix’s Shaw Elementary School.

At the start of the new semester, many teachers introduce new material. Schools also receive funding based on average enrollment in the first 100 days of school, so attendance is a top priority.

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