Children Crossing at the Border: An Unexpected Challenge for Schools

Blog Post
May 11, 2016
In January, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) carried out a series of deportation raids to remove Central American migrants who had entered the country illegally during the past two years. The raids primarily targeted parents and children who had been rejected for asylum — a move that drew sharp criticism — and served to raise fear of deportation among illegal immigrants. The repercussions of the raids impacted public school systems across the country. Here in the Washington, D.C. metro region, there were reports of decreased attendance at local schools due to concerns around leaving the house for fear of being detained. These fears were further escalated by stories of teenagers being arrested on their way to school and the perceived threat of ICE conducting deportation raids at public schools.

In response, several school systems across the country released statements condemning the actions of ICE and the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) asserted that ICE agents would not be allowed on school campuses without clearance. Children who enter the U.S. illegally are provided with several legal protections - including the right to a public education and the guarantee of privacy under FERPA. Furthermore, ICE has a policy of not going into schools. But as a recent Atlantic article highlights, few school districts have policies and guidance on the rights of undocumented students.  

The recent ICE raids are just one type of challenge faced by undocumented and unaccompanied minors. These children have often experienced trauma, and many have had interruptions to their education. That means school districts must develop a comprehensive set of services and instructional programs to support their needs.

At a March briefing organized by the American Federation of Teachers, First Focus, the National Immigration Law Center and Kids in Need of Defense, several panelists spoke about the need to better support unaccompanied and undocumented children. Nancy Navarro, a councilwoman from Montgomery County in Maryland, spoke about the increasing numbers of unaccompanied minors in the county many of whom had experienced trauma. “We have a little bit over 2,000 unaccompanied minors. Immediately we saw the impact with the school system. These are young people who have come through a horrific experience with a lot of trauma. We have had to figure out do we provide our teachers, our counselors, everybody with the tools to address a lot of these issues,” said Navarro.

Exposure to violence and trauma has been found to negatively impact brain development, executive function skills, school performance and behavior. Some school districts have launched trauma-informed care efforts to help address and mediate the impact of trauma on student behavior and achievement. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), a trauma-informed approach has four primary features:

  1. “Realizes the widespread impact of trauma and understands potential paths for recovery;
  2. Recognizes the signs and symptoms of trauma in clients, families, staff, and others involved with the system;
  3. Responds by fully integrating knowledge about trauma into policies, procedures, and practices; and
  4. Seeks to actively resist re-traumatization."
Adopting a trauma-informed approach requires extensive training for school counselors, teachers, and administrators. Harrisonburg City Public Schools — a small district in Virginia that serves many refugee students — has made a concentrated effort to help all school staff (counselors, teachers, administrators) learn strategies for working with students who have experienced trauma. According to April Howard, Executive Director of Psychological and Student Services,  the initiative began at the request of school counselors for training on how to work with refugee students and address trauma, “We know that we have these students, but what do we do? How do we respond? You’ll hear teachers say, ‘Well I know that Johnny has experienced this, how can I help? What can I do?’” To that end, HCPS held a division-wide training in January on trauma-informed care, and is working with a consultant to develop an action plan for how to implement trauma-informed practices in schools.

Harrisonburg has also developed newcomer programs to support students who arrive with limited English skills and interrupted education. These programs are one potential strategy school districts can employ to better support unaccompanied minors and other recent arrivals.  Newcomer programs are designed to meet the unique needs of recently arrived students and often consist of small group instruction apart from the general education classroom. According to a 2012 report by the Center for Applied Linguistics on newcomer programs in secondary schools these programs have four main goals:

     1. “To help students acquire basic English skills     
     2.  Provide some instruction in core content areas     
     3. Guide students’ acculturation to the school system in the United States   
     4.  Develop or strengthen students’ native language literacy skills”

However, given the diversity of the newcomer student population, no uniform model for these programs exists. The report highlights several common features of effective programs, including: relevant professional development, specific strategies to help newcomers transition into general education classrooms, content area instruction, and extended learning time. For example, at the High School of World Cultures in the Bronx, students are offered “PM school” two hours a day after school. These classes provide regents exam preparation, support for students with interrupted education and for dual language students.

But newcomer programs are rare. In 2012, only 24 states offered newcomer programs and about half of those had only one program. Those who have access to these programs may be the lucky ones. Recent analysis by the Associated Press reveals that 35 school districts across the country have been actively denying school enrollment to unaccompanied minors over the age of 16. According to the AP’s article, in Memphis these youth “have been blocked from going to Memphis high schools because officials contend the teens lacked transcripts or were too old to graduate on time” and pushed to enroll in an adult education school that provided GED classes and some English classes. While in New York, the Westbury school district was recently investigated by the state attorney general for their “unwritten policy” of routing English language learners over the age of 16 out of traditional high schools and into non-degree alternative education programs.

Many of the panelists at the March briefing noted the urgent need for additional resources to help school districts better support and meet the varied needs of unaccompanied and undocumented students. As Councilwoman Navarro pointed out, educating these students is both a moral and economic imperative, “When it comes to education and it come to workforce readiness, these will be the faces of our workforce.”

--This post is part of New America’s Dual Language Learners National Work Group. Click here for more information on this team's work. To subscribe to the biweekly newsletter, click here, enter your contact information, and select "Education Policy.""