For the past year now, many Americans have been hearing and reading about the 68,000 unaccompanied minors who have crossed illegally into the U.S. Nearly all of these minors come from El Salvador, Guatemala or Honduras, and since their arrival, immigration officials have released most of them to their parents or relatives who already live in this country.
A number of these children and teenagers are in deportation proceedings, but while they wait, they have been allowed to attend public schools. In Louisiana, schools have enrolled nearly 2,000 of them.
I reported in October on G.W. Carver Preparatory Academy, a charter school in New Orleans' 9th Ward that took in more than 50 of these children. Recently, I went back to see how they're doing.
The adjustment — for the students and the school — hasn't been easy. But Principal Ben Davis loves talking about the new Latino students who showed up at his school last August. He adds, though, that he hates the fact that most may not be with him very long.
"They know they could be deported at any point and that's a really, really terrifying reality for them," says Davis. You can see the emotional toll that this uncertainty is taking on them, he says. "The rates of trauma are really high."
So much so that Carver Prep has had to provide "trauma screenings" because teachers know all too well that depressed, anxious kids are much much harder to teach.
Still, most of these new arrivals seem grateful. They're learning English and catching up in math and science. Yet some are struggling to fit in, and that has contributed to tension between them and the rest of the student body, which is mostly poor, mostly African-American.
On the morning I visited, for example, there was a fight between a black student and one of the new Latino students. Teachers stepped in quickly to restrain one of the students involved.
One Latino student who saw the scuffle says there was a knife involved. It turns out not to be true.
Some of the new Latino students complain that black kids pick on them all the time.
"They insult us and hit us," says a boy named Yordan in Spanish. Since the students risk deportation, the school has asked that we use their first names only.
Not knowing English seems to be part of the problem. Sometimes, the black students think Spanish-speaking students are saying bad things about them, and Latino students suspect the same about their black classmates.
"Its a high school, and every school struggles with kids learning to get along with each other," says Davis. "I don't see this as some kind of racial-tension issue."
As the last morning bus drops off its last batch of students, I see a familiar face. It's Yashua, a 14-year-old from Honduras I interviewed last fall. I say hello from a distance and ask him how he's doing.
"Fine," he says.
Yashua is in deportation proceedings and has a court date scheduled for early May. His mother didn't want us to talk to him this time around because she thinks talking to the media could hurt his chances.
Teachers and administrators at Carver Prep have been patient and generous with these students. Davis says he's spending an extra $2,500 per student for special education services and instructional computer software tailored just for them. It allows them to take PowerPoint presentations a teacher creates and translate them into Spanish.
Carver Prep has also reassigned two teachers who've been trained to work with kids who don't know English. Coming up with the money for all this has not been easy.
But Louisiana and 34 other states are supposed to receive an additional $14 million in federal aid to pay for a wide range of academic and nonacademic services for these students. After all, these unaccompanied minors arrived not just emotionally distraught but often with little or no schooling.
"I can't even imagine what they've gone through," says Pete Kohn, an algebra teacher.
Kohn had never worked with students who don't know English. So he and a handful of his fellow teachers traveled to Honduras over winter break to study Spanish, on their own dime.
"That shows [my students] that I care about them, and they've responded," Kohn says. "They asked lots of questions: 'What did you see? Did you eat this, did you see this?' "
Despite the travel restrictions that Honduras has put in place, especially for tourists, Kohn says it was impossible to miss the poverty and lawlessness that students say they're fleeing from.
That's why the stability these kids now have, however brief, is important, he adds. "My day-to-day goal is to make sure that no matter where they end up they have more skills than they came here with, and make sure they felt like they were with people who cared about them."
The extra care and attention that teachers and administrators believe they've provided, apparently has paid off. This semester, nearly half of the ninth and 10th graders on the school's honor roll are unaccompanied minors.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
One of the more controversial and also heartrending stories of the past summer was the revelation that tens of thousands of young people were pouring over America's southern border alone. Some of those unaccompanied minors entering the U.S. illegally were as young as 6. Almost all were from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. Immigration officials have since released most to their parents or relatives already in the U.S., and nearly 2,000 are attending public schools in Louisiana. NPR's Claudio Sanchez has been following one school in New Orleans that took in over 50 of these kids.
CLAUDIO SANCHEZ, BYLINE: Ben Davis, the principal at Carver Prep Academy, loves to talk about the unaccompanied minors who showed up at his school last August, but he hates the fact that they may not be around very long.
BEN DAVIS: We have kids who are going to school every day, but they know they could be deported at any point. And that's a really, really, really terrifying reality for them.
SANCHEZ: On any given morning, says Davis, you can see the stress on their faces as they get off the school buses.
DAVIS: The rates of trauma are really, really high.
SANCHEZ: So much so that Carver Prep, a charter school, provides trauma screenings because teachers know that depressed, anxious kids are much, much harder to teach, although most of these new arrivals seem grateful because they're not just learning English, but math and science as well. Still, some are struggling to fit in, and that's contributed to the tension between them and the school's mostly poor African-American students.
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #1: He pissed me off. I'm going to beat him up.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: No, come on. Calm down, calm down.
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #1: He be pissing me off.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Hey, hey, chill.
SANCHEZ: This morning, for example, there was a fight on the bus. Teachers quickly stepped in.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Alexander and (inaudible).
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #2: (Speaking Spanish).
SANCHEZ: "I think he had a knife," says one student in Spanish. There is no knife, but Latinos complain that black kids pick on them all the time.
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #3: (Speaking Spanish).
SANCHEZ: "They insult us and hit us," says a boy named Yordan. Recently, one kid needed stitches after he was punched in the face. Latino students say not knowing English is part of the problem. Sometimes it sounds like they're talking about us, says another boy, or they think we're talking about them. Ben Davis, the principal, says if there is tension, it's not serious or out of the ordinary.
DAVIS: It's a high school, and every single high school in the country struggles with kids who are learning how to get along with each other. I don't see there being some kind of, you know, like, racial tension issue.
(SOUNDBITE OF SCHOOL BUS PARKING)
SANCHEZ: The last morning bus arrives. I see a familiar face, a 14-year-old from Honduras I interviewed last fall.
Yashua, (Speaking Spanish).
YASHUA: (Speaking Spanish).
SANCHEZ: He's now in deportation proceedings. His mom didn't want us to interview him because she thinks talking to the media could hurt his chances. Yashua, though, seems to be doing well under the circumstances. He's put on a few pounds, and he's on the honor roll. Carver Prep has been extra patient with these kids. Ben Davis says he's spending an extra $2,500 per student for special education services and a couple of computer programs tailored just for them.
DAVIS: They take any, like, PowerPoint that a teacher creates, and then the kids can access it and see it translated for them.
SANCHEZ: The school now has also reassigned two teachers trained to work with English-language learners. Coming up with the money for all this has not been easy, but Louisiana, along with 34 other states, are supposed to get an additional $14 million in federal aid to pay for a wide range of services. Many of these kids, after all, arrived with almost no schooling, emotionally distraught.
PETE KOHN: I can't even imagine what they've gone through.
SANCHEZ: Pete Kohn teaches algebra. He had never worked with students who don't know English, so he and a handful of teachers traveled to Honduras over winter break to study Spanish on their own dime.
KOHN: To me that shows them that I care about them, and they've really responded to that. And they really are asking lots of questions. What did you see? Did you eat this? Did you see this?
SANCHEZ: Kohn says it was impossible to miss the poverty and lawlessness that students say they're fleeing from. That's why this stability that they now have, however brief, is important, says Kohn.
KOHN: My day-to-day goal is to make sure that no matter where they end up, they have more skills than they came here with and make sure that they felt like they were with people who cared about them.
SANCHEZ: Teachers and administrators believe the extra care and attention has paid off. Today nearly half of the ninth- and 10th-graders on the school's honor roll are unaccompanied minors. Claudio Sanchez, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.