Minors Fleeing Central America Face Shaky Transition to U.S. Schools

Nona Willis Aronowitz, NBC News, September 15, 2014

In the late afternoon at the multi-colored Guatemalan-Maya Center, teens and kids as young as six were huddled in makeshift classrooms with teachers and high school volunteers. Days of the week and months of the year filled the dry erase boards. The written words were in English, but the children were speaking a jumble of languages: Spanish, a smattering of English, and indigenous Mayan languages like Q’anjob’al, Kachiquel, or Mam–the only ones some of these children are fluent in.

The center, a nonprofit serving immigrants from Guatemala, has been open since the 1980s, when brutal civil war drove many Guatemalan citizens to the United States. Up until a few months ago, the afterschool language program, Escuelita Maya, was frequented by only a handful of elementary school kids. But recently, the program’s enrollment has exploded along with the surge of unaccompanied minors crossing the border, and Escuelita Maya now serves dozens of teens. When the Palm Beach County school district realized they were enrolling at least one of these Central American minors every day, the district’s multicultural department directed their new students to the afterschool program for help with English.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection estimates that since October 2013, 66,000 children and teenagers have crossed the U.S. border without their parents, most of them from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. {snip}

But for the kids learning vocabulary at the center today, the transition has been far from seamless. Some have never been to school or haven’t attended for years. Some aren’t literate in English or Spanish, and only speak Mayan languages, mostly Q’anjob’al.

“[The kids] come here and they’re thrown into these massive high schools,” said Jill Skok, community outreach director at the Guatemalan-Maya Center. “They’re happy to be there,” but it’s hard for them to do work when “they don’t even know the definition of the questions.” Most of their families don’t know English, either.


But some school districts have neither bilingual teachers nor organizations like the Guatemalan-Maya Center. Rachel Diaz, an immigration attorney at the Mennonite Central Committee, recently worked with a 17-year-old boy who’d never been to school until he came to Everglades City, Florida, around two hours west of Miami. The small city has one K-12 school without an ESL program. Only one staff member, a social studies teacher, speaks Spanish.

“That teacher essentially wrote a letter saying, ‘Nice kid, but we don’t have what he needs,’” said Diaz. “He’s here to survive and work, and he doesn’t want to go back. But what do you do? Do you put him in kindergarten? How comfortable would parents be to have a 17-year-old sitting with their six-year-old?”

Diaz said the teen is determined to learn English and become a teacher, but she worries about the domino effect a rejection like this can have. When this 17-year-old tells another unaccompanied minor what happened, “that child may not even bother” enrolling, Diaz said. “For someone who is illiterate, even the paperwork to get in school can be too much.”

Carvalho said Miami-Dade has employed “aggressive outreach” to direct services centers and youth groups to ensure these kids know they have “a right to a free, public education.” But these minors, particularly older teenagers who aren’t legally required to attend school, may face pressure from their families to start working right away; Skok said the center has “lost a few kids” for this reason.


The prospect of free education void of violence or fear is a major reason many of the minors have fled Central America to meet their families. So even though the kids have gone through a trauma most United States citizens will never face, Skok and others say they’re elated to be in the classroom.

During afterschool one day, Skok pulled out a mental health survey that a Catholic Charities psychologist had provided for the center. The teachers helped students fill them out a few days earlier so they could track their progress; the kids rated their mental state from 1 to 10 in a handful of categories. Hugo’s “individual” mind state rated a .5; he missed his sick grandmother, he later explained.

“School,” however, earned a 10.

“They’re excited to learn, so [the challenges of] school don’t phase them,” Skok said. “What they worry about most is being deported. They don’t want to have to leave.”

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