Long before Central American migrant children drew media attention this summer, the Internationals Network for Public Schools was educating students from countries where violence is a daily occurrence and education is not guaranteed. The network will extend its welcome yet again this fall, to students from Central America as well as dozens of other countries.
When the school year begins September 4 in New York, recently arrived Central American migrant children will step into American schools for the first time along with thousands of other minors who also are most likely filled with excitement and first-day jitters.
Claire Sylvan, executive director of the New York-based Internationals Network for Public Schools, has learned of many true-life experiences from students and parents after officially founding the network of high schools in 2004. (The first high school on the campus of LaGuardia Community College was a collaborative effort between the New York City Department of Education and the City University of New York, in 1985.)
“I’m not downplaying the fact that there are a great number of new students from Central America, but on some level, this is something that we do,” Sylvan told Voices of NY about the public schools’ mission to provide quality education for recently arrived immigrant youth who have been in the country less than four years.
She shared a story with Voices of NY she’d heard from one Internationals school principal who’d met a distraught mother enrolling her son in school.
“This is the situation right now: What do you say to a mother who says, ‘They’ve already killed one of my children,’” Sylvan recounted. “‘I can’t leave this child [back home] to die.’”
There are now 19 public schools in the Internationals network, 15 of them in New York: six in the Bronx, four in Queens, three in Brooklyn and two in Manhattan. Two schools are located in predominately Hispanic neighborhoods and have already received many unaccompanied students, Sylvan said.
The Internationals schools – so named for the immigrant teens the network serves – partner with high schools in particular school districts to offer specialized programs for recently arrived immigrant teens. (Other Internationals schools are located in California, Virginia, and Washington, D.C.)
Students enrolled at the Internationals Network for Public Schools come from 119 countries and speak about 90 languages across the network of schools. According to the website, the student body consisted of Asian (28 percent), black (11 percent), Hispanic (53 percent) and white/Arabic/other (8 percent) in the 2011-2012 school year.
More than 57,000 children, mostly from the Northern Triangle countries of Central America – Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala – have been apprehended at the southwest border of the United States and often relocated. More than 37,000 have been released to live with an adult sponsor, be it a parent, relative or family friend, while they await their immigration proceedings, according to the Office of Refugee Resettlement.
New York State is the second-largest destination for these young migrants, with some 4,244 unaccompanied children, according to ORR. Texas received the largest number of children, 5,280, while 3,609 settled in California.
Some 1,341 children were released to sponsors in the five New York City counties since Jan. 1, 2014, according to ORR data in August. They will be attending schools in the largest school system in the U.S., serving 1.1 million students in more than 1,800 schools.
Voices of NY had the opportunity to learn how the Pan American International High School at Monroe in the Bronx is preparing for its new students under the guidance of Principal Bridgit Claire Bye, who said that her school has received large numbers of new students this year from countries not normally represented, such as Honduras and Ecuador.
But it’s nothing new for the school to be welcoming students who may have lived with violence, poverty and threats by gang members in their home countries. Often, teens have been traumatized by assaults they have endured or witnessed and may need nontraditional ways to help them get caught up with their education.
“We are lucky that we have had many of these students in the past, not just in the large numbers we have now,” Bye said in an email. “We already can predict some of the issues that will come up and are already preparing to deal with them.”
The enrollment at Pan American High School is 100 percent Latino and 100 percent English Language Learners, or ELLs, a term used by the New York City Department of Education to address the needs of immigrant students who speak a language other than English at home and “score below proficient on English assessments” when they enter the New York state school system.
“We used the Internationals model as a way to educate all our students,” Bye said, noting that the teaching model involves working in small groups all the time and ensuring that teachers collaborate with students so they learn English and tap their full academic potential.
She said her school would continue to offer an after-school program and Saturday school in order to better support these students.
“We will be working with all of them to help them acclimate to school, acclimate to a new way of doing school, support their parents, guardians or caregivers and using all of our staff to help support these kids and their needs,” she said.
The scenario dealing with immigrant secondary school youth has been seen many times before, Internationals’ executive director Sylvan said, including getting psychological services or legal aid for the children.
She said she believes that the new students “have experienced extreme trauma.”
She has seen it before when families fled Colombia in the 1980s during the height of narco-terrorism, or when other upheavals, whether natural or man-made, occurred.
“When there was an earthquake in Haiti, we had an uptick in the number of Haitian students,” Sylvan said. “We kind of look around the world and see what’s going on and go, hmmm…” she said, with quick reflection.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if we have an influx of Syrian students given what’s going on. We haven’t seen it yet, but sometimes it takes a little while before we even notice or it happens, so that’s not unusual,” Sylvan said.
Asked about the difficulties of teaching children with interrupted education, Sylvan said, “We think of them as incredibly resilient human beings who have been through some really interesting life experiences. And it’s our job to have them share their strengths and learn what they don’t know.”
The schools expect to enroll from 50 to as many as a couple hundred children who are classified as unaccompanied minors, she said.
Seats are always available for new students. “We’re not the only school(s) which will admit students who are recently arrived,” Sylvan said, but the network schools do have a particular entrance requirement, she noted.
“We like to tell people that we’re highly selective about who we admit. Students have to take a test to get in, but in our case, they have to fail it,” she said. “They have to be at the bottom levels of English proficiency. That’s the population we choose to serve.”
Conservative lawmakers and concerned taxpayers have questioned whether the growing numbers of undocumented children are entitled to public school at all and whether the federal government should pick up the costs for the unprecedented number of children entering the U.S. Schools receive state funding based on how many students are enrolled.
By law, underage alien children, as unaccompanied minors are designated, are required to attend school.
In May, U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. and Education Secretary Arne Duncan issued an update of school enrollment procedures for public school districts nationwide to “ensure that you do not discriminate on the basis of race, color, or national origin, and that students are not barred from enrolling in public schools at the elementary and secondary level on the basis of their own citizenship or immigration status or that of their parents or guardians.”
Educators say school enrollment will continue in the New York area well after the start date of September 4.
Sylvan said unaccompanied children often need help with legal services, housing or psychological issues after reunification with family. Reuniting with a parent they have not seen for years with a reconstituted family with half-siblings, new siblings or new stepparents, “that makes it even more complicated,” Sylvan said.
“How do you help families reunite and to live together because, on some levels, they’re strangers,” she said.
Several offices within the New York Department of Education “are collaborating to create a cohesive plan for the DOE’s response and how we will support schools and these children,” the department said in a press statement.
Asked if the recent arrivals want to learn, Sylvan said, “They’re kids. We shouldn’t idealize them. They are adolescents. They have all of the same issues that any other adolescent has compounded by other issues.”
And just like any other students, they have the opportunity to excel.
One of the Internationals students in New York originally arrived from Tibet and, until the age of 12, had been a yak herder.
“She’s now a Gates Millennium Scholar,” Sylvan said.
Nancy Ayala is a New York-based freelance writer and multimedia producer who covers U.S. Hispanic and Latin American news. Follow her on Twitter.