English Learners

Unaccompanied Minors Face Uneven Experiences in U.S. Schools

By Corey Mitchell — October 16, 2015 2 min read
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The tens of thousands of unaccompanied school-aged children and youths who crossed the U.S.-Mexico border in the spring and summer of 2014 had vastly different educational experiences depending on where they settled, according to a new report from the Migration Policy Institute.

The report makes the case that local school districts have felt the “most visible and immediate impact” of the surge of unaccompanied minors. The students, almost all of them from Central America and many with yearlong gaps in their formal education, represented a new challenge for the schools.

From the need for more English-language-learner services to mental health counseling, the needs of the students are met in some places and rebuffed in others, the report found.

“Anecdotal reports suggest school districts are reacting in significantly different ways, some creating service programs that address the children’s particular needs, while others have exercised policies that make school enrollment more difficult,” wrote Sarah Pierce, a research assistant with the U.S. Immigration Policy Program at the Migration Policy Institute and the report’s author.

The paper cites the work of three school districts, including the Montgomery County, Md., Sussex County, Del., and Dalton, Ga., schools for their efforts to address the needs of the unaccompanied minors, including trauma, interrupted formal education, family reunification, and legal issues.

According to the report, among the accommodations the Montgomery County schools provided were:

  • Instructional and emotional support for students with limited schooling and English-language skills
  • Bilingual parent volunteers to help families navigate the school system
  • Training for teachers and staff in skills related to the needs of unaccompanied minors
  • A job skills program for students who will not receive a high school diploma before they turn 21
  • Mental health support programs backed by the county government.

Conversely, the report points to New York’s Nassau County schools and several districts in North Carolina that have pushed back against the arrival of unaccompanied minors.

A joint investigation by the New York’s education department and the state attorney general’s office found evidence that some districts refused to enroll undocumented youths and unaccompanied minors if they were unable to produce documents demonstrating guardianship or residency in the state.

The New York State Board of Regents approved an emergency order last December to ensure that students were able to enroll in the state’s public schools regardless of their immigration status. The new policy prohibits schools from asking about the immigration status of students or their families during the enrollment process.

Under federal law, all children, regardless of their immigration status, have the right to enroll in public schools. Federal funding dedicates additional money for schools that enroll students who are English-language learners.

Here’s a copy of the Migration Policy Institute report:

UAC Integration FINAL

Graphic Source: Migration Policy Institute

A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.