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The Role of Teachers and School Administrators

Education officials around the country have mostly struck a welcoming tone. “We have both a legal and moral obligation to teach these kids,” said Alberto Carvalho, superintendent of Miami-Dade County Public Schools. There are numerous examples of teachers and school administrators extending a warm welcome to the newly arrived Central American children. The Internationals Network for Public Schools currently supports 19 international high schools and small learning communities in New York City, California’s Bay Area, Alexandria in Virginia, and Washington, DC.

Efforts to improve reception and community engagement are laudable and should be supported. Nevertheless, access to a free public education and persistence in school among undocumented Latino children are far from straightforward. Even though foreign-born children have a constitutional right to free public education from kindergarten through high school graduation, access to K-12 education does not mean that Latino children have access to the resources and support needed to succeed and persevere in school. Nationally, 40 % of unauthorized young adults, ages 18—24, have not completed high school. Unauthorized children who arrive in the United States before the age of 14 fare slightly better—72 % finish high school (Passel and Cohn 2009).

The preceding sobering statistics do not consider teen migrants who never “drop-in.” Indeed, the literature on immigrant children and youth is chock-full of studies on school dropouts as well as students who do well in school, often against all odds. Few scholars, however, focus on immigrants who arrive in the USA as adolescents and immediately take up waged employment (Fry 2005; Oropesa and Landale 2009). The teenagers who never “drop-in” constitute a hidden population. They are difficult to identify outside specialized programs catering to this particular group of young people who must put work ahead of formal schooling. As Isabel Martinez (2009) suggests: “[T]hese youth experience life stages of childhood and adolescence that differ from mainstream characterizations and thus adopt older age-graded identities that do not coincide with full-time schooling in the United States.” Indeed, some migrant youth pointed to cultural definitions of childhood and adulthood and suggested that they might not even be in school at their age.

What are the factors that contribute to dropping out of school or never dropping-in? In addition to legal vulnerability, many other issues plague children and youth in unauthorized households. Parental engagement with their children’s school—a positive predictor of academic achievement, higher self-esteem, and higher rates of high school completion and college enrollment—is often a challenge for immigrant families.

Although many of the interviewed parents had high educational aspirations for their children, few had the resources to realize these goals because of a variety of factors including work schedules and cultural norms. Some parents even expressed that the very reason they came to the United States was so their children had better educational opportunities. Many had very limited education themselves, however, and as a result were only semiliterate in Spanish and illiterate in English, leaving them unable to help their children with homework.

Employment pressures also contributed to parents’ inability to actively engage with their children’s education, a trend that worsened as children aged. For example, many parents worked more than one job or worked graveyard shifts. Parents of small children were eager for their children to succeed in school and meet developmental and educational milestones. Yet, with few exceptions, parents of high school students did not demonstrate interest in their children’s achievements or problems at school. Parents with limited education aspire for their children to get a better education, but they may deem completion of primary or middle school sufficient.

Little is known about attitudes towards education expressed by other caregivers. Approximately 40 % of the newly arrived young migrants have been released to relatives and family friends; many might not be in a position to support their educational aspirations. This reality needs to be taken into account when local communities talk about educating newly arrived Central American youths.

Given the fact that most of the recently apprehended youth are over 14 years of age and that the majority of them are male, many older teens will not attend traditional public schools. They will need to be referred to schools that allow students to combine work with GED and ESL training or provide paid on-the-job vocational and ESL education. Some communities have already established such programs. The Next Step Public Charter School in the Columbia Heights neighborhood in the District of Columbia offers bilingual GED and ESL training with flexible class schedules that allow students to work and go to school. Horizonte Instruction and Training Center in Salt Lake City is an example of an alternative school that provides intensive, survival, and preemployment English training and is very responsive to the special needs of young parents and pregnant teens. Its open-entry and open-exit policy corresponds well with many young immigrants’ changing employment and educational needs.

Local communities need to be flexible in thinking about the educational needs of new arrivals. There is a need to identify a wide range of educational opportunities (e.g., traditional public schools with experience serving foreign-born students) and less orthodox educational programs that will meet the needs of older teens who need to combine work with school. It is necessary to place more emphasis on vocational training, including on-the-job programs, if the arriving Central American youths are to have a chance at upward mobility.

The community college system has been the central institution for training young adults who will not attend a traditional four-year university. Unfortunately, dropout rates at community colleges are high, and those who do remain often are stuck in remedial classes that will never allow them to reap educational rewards (Holzer 2011). Social service organizations and nonprofits often step in to fill the need for training in viable job skills. Such programs should be identified and assessed regarding suitability for incoming young migrants.

Additional support also is needed for those immigrant students who do have educational aspirations. The support should come both from within the family and the community and from the schools and host communities. Edu Futuro, a nonprofit founded in 1998 by a group of parents from Bolivia, who wanted to provide a support network for the educational needs of Latino students and families in northern Virginia, is but one example of partnerships between families and community leaders.

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