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Private Schools for Refugees Open in Miami Area

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Nonprofit private education centers are opening in Roman Catholic churches in Dade County, Fla., to help refugee children from Cuba and Haiti make a smoother transition into American public and private schools.

Three such Varela Centers have opened in the Hialeah area. Run by a coalition of groups that includes the Archdiocese of Miami, the centers are named after a 19th-century Cuban priest.

Another member of the coalition, the Ad Hoc Committee for Family Reunification, a Miami-based nonprofit group formed last year to work with refugees, will provide scholarships for refugee children to attend private schools once they leave the centers.

"The essence of the program is not to become a burden on the public school system," said Maria Dominguez, a member of the Ad Hoc Committee.

Miami is receiving large numbers of Haitian and Cuban refugees from U.S. military camps in both Panama and Guant namo Bay, Cuba.

The United States has admitted about 1,500 children from Guant namo since October, according to Ron Tomalis, a spokesman for the community relations service of the U.S. Justice Department.

The Dade County school district has an emergency immigration-education plan to deal with a refugee influx, but the school district is 289 students shy of a minimum requirement for implementing it, said Jaime Torrens, a supervisor in the county's department of energy and recycling programs who is involved with refugee programs.

Growing Demand

Mr. Torrens said the district has offered some technical assistance to the Varela Centers, "primarily the identification of potential volunteers andrecommending some materials that might be used."

Michael Arias, the executive assistant to the director of the Varela Centers, said the influx of refugees reinforced the need to open new centers quickly.

"We hope to have enough centers for 1,410 children," he said. "Eventually, we're opening more than 20 centers."

As of last week, the Varela centers had enrolled 110 children.

"We hope that all the refugees will be out of Guant namo soon," Ms. Dominguez said.

She added that the centers should help bridge an important gap while the families navigate through the legal system.

Making a Difference

"We are estimating that we can support them for the next school year and by that time, the parents would have hopefully gone through the legal immigration processes," and begun trying to become U.S. citizens, Ms. Dominguez added.

The Rev. Gustavo Miyares of the Immaculate Conception Church, where one of the centers is located, said last week that he has already seen a difference in the refugee children.

"I think we're finding that they are doing well in the centers," he said.

Varela Center classes are emphasizing English and basic learning skills, Ms. Dominguez said. The students also receive psychological counseling.

The classes will last through August. Organizers hope most of the students will then be ready to enter regular public or private schools.

"We're hoping to help ease the transitions" from an unstable environment to a stable one, said Father Miyares.

Certified teachers have been hired to work in the centers, while neighborhood volunteers are helping with administrative activities.

Organizers have begun the process of raising the $2 million they estimate will be required to run the 20 centers they hope to establish.

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