David, a husky 12-year-old, left San Pedro Sula, his violence-racked home city in northwestern Honduras, in the middle of May.
Departing with three other boys—the oldest was 17 and equipped with a map of Mexico—David and his traveling companions joined the rushing exodus of young Central American migrants traveling alone from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras to the United States.
David’s ultimate destination: an efficiency apartment in Washington where his father and mother, whom he had not seen since he was 4, live with the 6-year-old U.S.-born brother he had never met.
After a 3,100-mile trek by foot, bus, car, and, finally, an old tire to float across the Rio Grande, David was detained near McAllen, Texas. He spent nine days in a U.S. Border Patrol detention center, and more than four weeks in a government-run shelter in Texas for unaccompanied youths. Then, in late June, David was reunited with his family at Dulles International Airport, near the nation’s capital.
He is now one of more than 55,000 unaccompanied immigrant children and youths who have arrived in the United States from Central America since last fall.
And he is now among the tens of thousands of such children enrolling in public schools across the country as they wait for immigration judges to decide if they can remain here or must be deported. Most will require a number of supports that can be costly, including English-language instruction, as well as counseling and mental-health services.
“When I saw him, I was so happy,” David’s mother, Dilma, said in Spanish. “I thought that I can’t go back and get those eight years back with him, but I am relieved that he’s here and safe. Now, I just want him to be able to go to school.” (She requested that her last name not be used because she is undocumented.)
Meeting Students’ Needs
After a peak in June, when federal agents detained more than 10,000 youths and children, the wave of unaccompanied minors from Central America flowing across the U.S.-Mexico border has been tapering, according to federal data.
As of last week, more than 55,000 unaccompanied children who crossed the border illegally since last October had been referred to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the agency responsible for their care. Most have been released to a parent or other adult sponsor in the United States, while just over 3,500 remained in government shelters, according to Kenneth Wolfe, a spokesman for the agency.
And once the federal government releases the children, they are required to enroll in school.
Meanwhile, educators in some districts are working to marshal resources to help meet the needs of the child migrants. Those students may have suffered trauma from either witnessing or experiencing violence back home or during their journeys north. Some will have been out of school for months, even years.
Others, like David, may struggle to adjust to reuniting with family members they haven’t seen in years or that they’ve never even met.
“I am still learning about his personality,” said Dilma, who is 29. “I am learning how to be his mother again. It is difficult.”
In Oakland, Calif., the school board this month approved a request by district leaders to hire an “unaccompanied minors specialist” who can help link the recently arrived students to an array of basic services, such as housing and clothing, as well as more complex needs, such as legal representation.
Grants from local private foundations will pay for the new position, which the district is already advertising, said Troy Flint, a spokesman for the Oakland Unified system.
“This is a clear humanitarian crisis, and we feel a moral obligation to help them above and beyond our legal requirement to educate them,” Mr. Flint said of the newcomers. “We needed to commit to provide them the care and support that we offer to any of our students, but their needs are unique.”
Since June 2013, the 36,000-student district has enrolled 350 new immigrant students, most from Central America. About 150 are unaccompanied minors, Mr. Flint said.
The school board in San Francisco recently approved a resolution making it clear that the district—which estimates that nearly 200 school-age children from Central America were released to family members living in the city between January and June of this year—will provide an array of services to support them.
While districts mobilize to serve the new arrivals, they are still grappling with how many such students they may ultimately enroll, and how best to classify them for purposes of federal funding and accountability, said Gabriela Uro, the director of English-language-learner policy and research at the Council of the Great City Schools, which represents the nation’s urban school systems.
“It’s just an unknown for us, and districts are in a sort of limbo on this,” Ms. Uro said. “Our districts have to enroll them and provide them instruction, but aren’t sure how to categorize them for purposes of accountability.”
So far, no new federal funds have been requested by the Obama administration for states and districts absorbing a majority of the young migrants. States with robust Central American communities, such as Texas, California, Florida, New York, Virginia, and Maryland have received the largest numbers.
Districts with few of the young immigrants will absorb the costs of educating them with relative ease.
But others, such as the Miami-Dade County district in Florida, have already seen a significant uptick in their numbers and anticipate more, so the impact could be greater.
The main source of immigrant-related federal funding for schools is the Title III aid that largely helps pay for services for English-language learners. Under federal law, states may set aside as much as 15 percent of their Title III funds to use specifically for providing services to recently arrived immigrants, most of whom are also English-learners.
Among some of the states with the largest numbers of recent child migrants, there is a lot of variation in how much money was reserved for new immigrant students.
California, which received roughly $149 million in Title III grants in 2013-14, set aside about 5 percent, or $8 million, for districts in need of extra money to serve new immigrants, according to a state education department spokeswoman. Texas, which has received the most unaccompanied minors so far, reserved 6 percent, or $5.9 million of its Title III allocation in 2013-14, a state education agency spokeswoman said.
The U.S. Department of Education has said that districts may be able to tap other sources of federal assistance for new immigrants, such as funds for homeless students.
Before David had even arrived in Washington, Dilma visited the neighborhood middle school—with a highly regarded bilingual program—to inquire about what she would need to enroll him. After multiple visits and a few frustrating setbacks related to vaccinations and paperwork, she successfully enrolled her son.
David was scheduled to start 7th grade on Aug. 25. His first date in immigration court is still pending.
A version of this article appeared in the August 27, 2014 edition of Education Week as A Long Journey From Honduras to Middle School in the U.S.