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LI schools face influx of unaccompanied immigrant children

Central Islip Senior High School is shown on

Central Islip Senior High School is shown on Wheeler Road, Wednesday, April 13, 2011. Credit: Kevin P Coughlin

Long Island school districts face the challenge of providing services and support to an influx of students from more than 2,200 school-age immigrants placed with relatives and sponsors after entering the country illegally as unaccompanied minors.

Nassau and Suffolk emerged as the top counties in the tristate area -- and the third region nationally -- for the number of resettled children aged 17 and younger, according to the most recent federal figures for the first seven months of the year.

Among districts that reported figures last week on enrolled students who were unaccompanied minors, Central Islip had about 130, Glen Cove had about 30, Freeport had 25, and Hampton Bays had seven. Brentwood, Hempstead, Westbury, Uniondale and Patchogue-Medford, whose schools have significant Latino immigrant populations, did not provide numbers or did not comment.

"It's a challenge for districts to be able to accommodate students who come in, not only because they are English-language learners, but my guess is that these are students who come in with potentially other emotional trauma as well," said Julie Lutz, chief operating officer of Eastern Suffolk BOCES, which provides support for immigrant students in 51 school districts. "We need to kind of step back and assess and figure out what are the best kinds of support to put in place."

Board of Cooperative Educational Services officials and school superintendents said they do not expect to have a firm number of resettled immigrant children in the Island's schools, and in which districts, for several weeks.

What is evident, educators and administrators said, is that schools and the networks that support them will have to use more resources to help newcomers catch up, and find programs that allow older students to make progress even when they can't meet diploma requirements for high school graduation.

English instruction needed

Many of the children are expected to need intensive instruction in English, including tutoring before and after school, educators said. Some of them will need to be tested in their native languages for special education and related services.

That translates into the need for teachers and other support staff with the necessary training, they noted.

While "the core problem is that we will serve every single child that we can serve," said Roberta Gerold, president of the Suffolk County Superintendents Association, as an administrator "you have to think how do you redistribute the resources in a time of a tax cap and a property-tax freeze."

The rise in immigrant enrollment stems from the larger international migration crisis, as children from the Central American nations of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala have been fleeing violence and poverty in their countries.

Under the federal anti-trafficking law modified in 2008 to include new protection for children, minors aged 17 and under, other than those from Mexico and Canada, are not held in detention for deportation, but are referred to less restrictive shelters. They often are released to parents, relatives or other guardians already in the United States as they await an immigration hearing to determine if they will be deported.

New York ranks second in the nation, after Texas, for receiving 4,244 of the more than 37,000 immigrant children from January through July 31 -- part of a resettlement operation that federal officials project will reach 60,000 nationally by year's end.

Federal aid to be sought

Two Long Island congressmen said they want to help districts affected by the additional students.

Rep. Steve Israel (D-Huntington) said he is working on a bill seeking emergency funding for districts "to ensure that they are able to educate these additional students while still maintaining the same quality of education for their current students."

Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford) said some form of federal reimbursement should be made for the impact of the immigrant minors.

"To me, this is a federal responsibility," King said Thursday. "The children are here because of federal policy, and it's an unanticipated cost."

King has scheduled a meeting this week with Central Islip educators to discuss their specific needs.

Among nearly 447,000 students in Long Island's 124 districts in the 2012-13 school year, more than 90,000 -- about 21 percent -- were identified as Hispanic, according to the most recent figures available from the state Education Department. That year, the Island had 31,145 English-learners of all races and ethnicities, about 7 percent of students, the agency's data show.

Adding another 2,200 language-learners would bring significant -- though not overwhelming -- challenges, said Terri Brady-Mendez, program administrator for ESL Bilingual Programs at Eastern Suffolk BOCES and director of an Islandwide resource network for bilingual education.

The children, after a difficult migration and subsequent release to their new homes, need guidance and support in adapting to life here and coping with the trauma they have experienced, she said, because some have said they were victims of or witnesses to violence.

"The challenge is not only dealing with the academics but also the socio-emotional piece," Brady-Mendez said. "These kids are bringing an enormous amount of experience that probably won't help them in their concentration. I am sure that we will need some sort of support network set up, including bilingual counselors and other staff."

The fact that Long Island already has well-established English as a second language and bilingual programs will help, she said.

Students' skills vary

Glen Cove schools Superintendent Maria L. Rianna said her district typically sees enrollment from students who are new to the country through the first months of each school year. The students, she said, arrive at different proficiency levels, which means educating them properly is not just about placing them in English and bilingual classes. Some have had little to no formal education.

"It's difficult, it's costly and you have to design programs that meet their various needs and that don't always align with the programs we have for students who have that consistency in their instruction," Rianna said. "I don't know that it's very fair to them to put them in a high school program when they are behind the eight ball like they are" in many cases and "may lack the skills to be successful at that level."

Freeport Superintendent Kishore Kuncham said the number of resettled students in his district has been rising steadily -- and the district, unlike many others on the Island, already has been experiencing enrollment gains. "Most probably, we will have to be adding some teachers, particularly at the high school," he said.

Administrators in smaller districts -- such as Hampton Bays, which so far has a total of 114 new students for the current school year -- also worry amid rising enrollment.

"What's most concerning to me is the unknown factor," said Superintendent Lars Clemensen, adding that districts receiving students who were unaccompanied minors are "in a reactive position" that makes it difficult to plan everything from staffing needs to how many textbooks to order.

State cost put at $148M

Last week, the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a group in Washington, D.C., that favors deporting many unaccompanied minors, issued its estimate of education costs so far.

The group said New York would lead the nation, with $147.7 million needed to educate its newly arrived minors this school year, out of an estimated $761.4 million expense nationally.

"These are decisions made in Washington and paid for at the local level," said Ira Mehlman, the federation's spokesman.

However, Margie McHugh, director of the National Center on Immigrant Integration Policy for the Migration Policy Institute, a nonprofit think tank in the nation's capital, said the federation is not a research organization and its estimates are based on assumptions about the number of children attending schools and needing intervention services that could lead to "an inflated number."

Still, McHugh agreed that localities and states are carrying the burden of a law passed with bipartisan consensus.

"Some are making the obvious argument that this is an unfunded federal mandate," McHugh said. "This is a prime moment in the modern chapter of our immigration policy-making to recognize that if the federal government is responsible for setting immigration policy, it should also be responsible for, at a minimum, sharing the cost of that policy with states and localities."

Despite the challenges, educators in districts in both counties echoed the sentiment of Central Islip Superintendent Craig G. Carr, who said in a statement last week that the district's priority is helping the students.

"These children, newly arrived, have the opportunity to be well-educated, to find their slice of the 'American dream,' to earn a brilliant future and contribute back to society in larger measure than the investment," Carr said.

With Michael R. Ebert


Programs and services in Long Island school districts for English-language learners, aimed at easing students' transition and helping them meet academic standards, include:

Daily instruction in English as a second language Requirements are aligned with students' skill levels and grades. For example, a beginner-to-intermediate language-learner would need 72 minutes of ESL instruction per day in elementary to middle school, while a high school student at the same skill level would receive 108 minutes of ESL instruction.

Participation in bilingual programs A school must establish this kind of program when it has 20 students who speak the same language, other than English, and who are attending the same grade in the same building. This involves teaching at least one content area -- often, it is math -- in the students' native language.

Access to school programs English-learners are entitled to any services offered to the rest of the student population, including counseling and extracurricular activities. This creates demand for bilingual staff.

Supplementary services English-learners in many cases are offered after-school instruction, homework help and test preparation. Costs usually are offset by federal grants.

Special education Some students have to be tested in their native languages for special education services, either for temporary assistance or long-term intervention.


Sources: Long Island Regional Bilingual Education Resource Network; interviews with BOCES and school district officials

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