Imagine trying to educate a student who cannot speak English or any of the common Spanish dialects, has never spent a day in school in his life and is now well into his teens.
As school starts in districts around the country, this is precisely the task many teachers will face as thousands of unaccompanied alien children from Central America show up for class.
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At Hall County Schools about 50 miles northeast of Atlanta, 35 Central American students have enrolled so far and another 15 or so are expected this week, school officials told WND. Some will need expensive interpreters for obscure dialects, if they can even be found.
"There are 21 dialects of Spanish, all so different," said Eloise Barron, assistant superintendent for teachers and learning at Hall County Schools.
And some of the Central American children are arriving from remote villages that speak only in Mayan, which is not one language but a family of more than 20 ancient tribal tongues.
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"Some speak Mayan, and so the problem we're having is we have about a third of our student population is Hispanic to begin with and some of the individuals we have we're unable to converse with because they don't know Spanish, and of course not English, so we're having difficulty communicating," Barron said.
Barron said she only knows of one translator capable of working through all the various Mayan dialects and he's in Florida.
"We are trying to see if he can Skype with us and answer questions for us that we can't find answers to about these children," she said. "When were you last in school? How many years have you been in school? Some of them they're not producing that refugee resettlement form that shows proof to us that they did enter through that southwestern border and were actually processed there. That is important because it means they had their immunizations and a health screening."
Making matters worse is the fact that the children coming from remote regions of Central America not only speak obscure languages, they also have little or no previous schooling.
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"We have a 14-year-old girl right now at one of our middle schools and a 16-year-old young man registered yesterday at one of our high schools and their forms indicated they have never been to school in their lives," Barron said. "We're trying to decide how many of these we need to pull together and do in-depth assessments and determine if they have been taught anything by anybody regardless of age. Is there anything we can offer this child at the high-school level? You can't very well put a 16 year old in kindergarten."
That means schools have to create a special independent lesson plan, which is also very expensive.
"You have to come up with an IEP, or individualized educational plan, which is like what you do with special-education students," Barron said. "That's what you do unless we find two or three at the same level, and then you can combine resources."
Governors nationwide have been warning that the costs to taxpayers will be enormous as additional teachers, staff and interpreters will need to be hired. School districts already at full capacity may have to bring in mobile units to house the students. But those concerns have only been met with silence, or stern warnings from the Obama administration.
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On Monday, Obama's Department of Education sent a fact sheet to states and schools highlighting the children’s right to attend public school.
It says all children in the United States “are entitled to equal access to a public elementary and secondary education, regardless of their or their parents’ actual or perceived national origin, citizenship, or immigration status.”
The prospect of tens of thousands of children mostly from Central American countries attending school as they wait for their immigration status to be decided has the potential to be explosive after this summer’s emotional public debate about the border, reported The Hill.
"There are many consequences of the federal government’s failure to secure the border and the fiscal impact of educating unaccompanied alien children is certainly one of them," Travis Considine, a spokesman for Texas Gov. Rick Perry, told The Hill.
Around 63,000 children, mostly from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, have been apprehended this year trying to cross the border.
Atlanta area absorbing hundreds of immigrant children
School has already started in Georgia. And at DeKalb County Schools, which includes part of the city of Atlanta and is the third largest school district in Georgia, a flood of immigrant children have showed up to be processed every day this week.
Starting last Friday, each morning about 100 to 200 immigrant children have lined up to register at the district's International Welcome Center. More than half of them are told to go home and come back the next day. Some have spent the night sleeping on sidewalks outside the center.
"We expect to process 60 a day, and it takes two hours to completely process each one, and today we did 67, so we are working overtime," said Quinn Hudson, communications director for DeKalb County Schools. "We'll probably process 1,000 over the first month of school.
"We have building capacity to take them in. If we don't, we make capacity. We have very modern, up-to-date mobile classrooms we can bring in, we have 100 new teachers we brought in, and we work with half-a-dozen local and national refugee assistance organizations as well."
Hudson said students at DeKalb Schools speak 140 different languages, and about 21,000 of the 100,000 students speak a language other than English.
He said immigrant students come to the international welcome center accompanied by a parent or a foster guardian assigned by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
"So we have 10 languages covered by 13 interpreters and when we need an interpreter for an obscure language we have different sources we can go to," he said. "We just had one child come in who spoke Sangro, which is a combination of Swahili and French, and only 400,000 people speak it in the Congo, so every year we have a lot of challenges in that way. Someone like that you do a lot of hand signals and then you just try to build on that. The whole socialization thing is also a big factor. We have 4,000 refugees in our school system, and they have lived in refugee camps all their lives and so they don't even know what a toilet is. For many, this is the first time they've seen indoor plumbing."
But the immigrant children's parents are eager to enroll them, Hudson said. It's a chance for their kids to have a solid, free education that isn't available in their homelands.
"They have the same parental awareness of the importance of education and they know they will get it in the U.S. and we are committed to educating them as long as they show up with their records and immunizations," he said. "If they don't have their immunizations, they are sent to the health department and they are back usually within a few hours. Those parents make sure those kids get there because they want their kids in school. And I have observed a direct parallel as with American parents, that same intense commitment to get their kids in school and get them performing well in school."
In Hall County, Barron said several of the 35 students who have showed up so far did not come with the proper documentation, such as the "alien minor" form issued by the Department of Homeland Security at one of the refugee camps.
"The ones that show up that can't speak English or our Spanish, and don't produce one of these forms, we're having a hard time figuring out where they are coming from and what they need, and that could not only make it difficult for them but it could become disruptive to others who are trying to learn," Barron said.
"They can't read English and can't read Spanish but here they're required to sign this alien minor form saying they understand the conditions of their release in the sponsored agreement and they agree to appear before ICE and DHS offices and agree to notify them within five days of a change of address and they sign it," she continued. "But they will be processed though ICE and have their day in court, so that makes you think it could take from three months to three years until their hearing. So they may be temporarily here but while they're here we have to educate them the best we can."
She said a young person who has no schooling of any kind, with no written language skills, is much harder to educate than your typical foreign student who has been in school.
"If they're not in school and they're in some village, if they come from remote village areas, then they have never had a language structure to build on, of speaking anything correctly," she said. "Someone who has never had any formal language training they don't really have anything to compare the new language to, so it will take longer for them to learn English."
The root of the problem
It was a Supreme Court ruling in 1982 that said public schools cannot deny illegal immigrants the right to study in public schools, kindergarten to 12th grade. Attorney General Eric Holder and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, along with the Justice and Education Departments, have recently re-issued a public announcement and provided simplified procedures regarding illegal-immigrant enrollment.
Most South Carolina schools won't open until later this month, but Gov. Nikki Haley has been frustrated in her attempts to get information from the federal government on how many Central American children will be dumped on her state.
It's hard to plan for what you don't know, such as whether the state's schools will be getting any of the 350 illegal-immigrant children sent there from the border. The federal government won't say who the children are, how old they are, who they're staying with or where they are, citing privacy laws.
Haley said she can't even get a vague idea from Homeland Security of where the children are being housed.
“[T]he question I gave Secretary Johnson was, 'Can you at least give us the area so we can prepare these schools and prepare everyone?' And he said no," she told WSPA-TV in Columbia.
One exasperated mom told WND that she went to register her child for public school in South Carolina a few weeks ago and was told she wouldn't be registered for classes until she provided a copy of her birth certificate, her immunization record, a photo ID to prove she was the parent, two different utility bills to prove her place of residence and the name and contact information of her previous school.
"Why does this native-born American have to jump through hoops before my daughter can walk through the doors of our school, while children in the country illegally can waltz into classrooms, no strings attached, and consume valuable resources paid for by American families already struggling to support their own?" she asked. "This is beyond scandalous, infuriating and beyond surreal."
Most larger school districts could handle some unexpected children showing up on the first day of school, but districts like DeKalb in Atlanta are prepared to bring in more staff and even mobile units if necessary. Some of the smaller or rural districts could find themselves with too few teachers, meaning larger classes.
“I think the schools are going to have to do a lot of what state government's having to do, which is to figure this out," Haley told WSPA. "And, you know when kids show up, by federal law we are required to educate them and we are required to give health care.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said Tuesday, "The state of South Carolina should get some help from the federal government in terms of paying the bill, too."
Barron said she can't predict how many more Central American students will be coming to Hall County.
"I can't give a final tally," she said. "They will keep coming."