There is a disconnect between the education policy debates and what is really happening in public schools. In Wednesday’s NY Times, Miriam Jordan captured that reality. Jordon’s story describes public school educators’ work across the country to serve the needs of children whose schooling has been delayed and interrupted by the journeys they and their families have undertaken.
While legislators have been haggling over the state budgets that generally underfund our public schools, and while our U.S. Secretary of Education and her fellow advocates promote various kinds of school vouchers and privately operated charter schools, Jordan describes the hard work of school district professionals trying to serve the needs of immigrant students who may worry about threatened ICE raids, who may have survived harrowing border crossings, or who may have endured long stays in the detention centers where children are being warehoused.
The 1982, U.S. Supreme Court decision in Plyler v. Doe protects the right of every child living in the United States to a free and accessible public education. Jordan writes: “Under a 1982 Supreme Court decision, all children, regardless of immigration status, are entitled to a K through 12 education. With hundreds of thousands of new parents and children crossing the border in recent months, districts across the country are having to transfer teachers to affected schools, expand bilingual training for staff and prepare for students who may be traumatized.”
Most of us are satisfied not to think too much about what happens to immigrant children at school. Maybe we just assume that public schools will somehow take care of the needs of these children; many of us are willing to criticize schools when the children fail to learn English or catch up with their studies in a mere matter of months. Few of us try to imagine the challenges for the school district professionals attempting to ensure the availability of appropriate services. Neither do we imagine the efforts of school principals and teachers trying to make their institutions welcoming for students who bring enormous needs and challenges.
In Jordan’s story we read about far flung school districts trying to adjust their curricula and teaching staffs. In Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, “The school district of 50,000 people enrolled 1,000 new Central American students last year, prompting a hiring spree of bilingual teachers and front office staff, and in the fall the district will roll out 15 dual-language schools and ‘newcomer centers’ to cater to Spanish speakers. Nearly half of the books at the library in the Munger Mountain Elementary school in Jackson, Wyo., are in Spanish, where the immigrant population has ballooned in recent years. The school has recently begun offering all instruction in both English and Spanish. Scott Eastman, the principal, said that students do not just arrive with learning deficiencies. One child had been separated from his family, and was so traumatized he didn’t speak for weeks. ‘He constantly cried, worrying that his grandmother was going to be killed back in El Salvador and that he would never see his parents again.’ Mr. Eastman said.”
Jordan’s focus, however, is Palm Beach County, Florida: “Last year, the Palm Beach County school district enrolled 4,555 Guatemalan students in K through 12, nearly 50 percent more than two years earlier. Many of the students come from the country’s remote highlands and speak neither Spanish nor English. The number of elementary school students in K through 5 more than doubled to 2,119 in that same period.”
In Lake Worth, one Palm Beach County school community, we follow the work of an elementary school principal: “Ana Arce-Gonzalez, the principal at South Grade Elementary School in the heart of Lake Worth’s immigrant enclave, said that in 25 years as an educator she had never experienced anything like it. The school saw its enrollment rise from 820 at the beginning of the last school year to 910 in the spring, pushing it over capacity… A Cuban-American who is entering her third year at the school, Ms. Arce-Gonzalez said she has wrestled with ways to connect with families, and began making home visits. ‘It takes a lot of hand-holding.'”
Here are some of the challenges Ms. Arce-Gonzalez describes: “There are children like 8-year-old Sherly Perez, who crossed the border with her father and lives in a room in her aunt’s house. One child lives with 10 other people in a house with just one bathroom. Some fourth and fifth graders have become suicidal and depressed…. A quarter of the children last year who enrolled at the school in third grade, the grade during which the state tests student progress in reading and math, were newcomers. Only 11 percent of kindergartners were assessed as ‘kindergarten-ready’ when they started school… This summer, South Grade has an intensive pre-K section and supplemental kindergarten, first-and second-grade classes funded by a combination of district and nonprofit money. In the fall, the school will offer four dual-language kindergarten classes.”
This is a story of public school educators striving to realize one of our traditional ideals— that as a society we share the responsibility for making opportunity accessible for every child, whatever the child’s race, ethnicity, nationality, gender, or sexual orientation. It is a generous vision. Despite the cruelty of today’s American’s political leadership—holding children in unsanitary, unsafe and inhumane conditions in border detention centers—it is heartening to read about educators figuring out ways to ensure an education for children who so desperately need a welcome.
Jordon’s report is also a story of the strength of public institutions. We learn about every day public officials—school administrators and teachers—fulfilling their obligation to uphold our nation’s legal promise to protect—for every child living in our country—the right to an education.