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Area schools grapple with how to educate student refugees

POSTED: March 22, 2014 11:51 p.m.

Holyer Gomez Mendoza crossed the choppy Rio Grande in a small boat before U.S. officials caught him and later decided to admit him to the country as a refugee.

His home in Guatemala was full of violence, with drug trafficking and gangs of hitmen drawing in some his age.

Now in Gainesville, the 17-year-old started attending the city’s high school in November after being educated through the ninth grade in his home country.

He is one of a growing number of refugees that are presenting a challenge for local school systems.

While Gomez Mendoza speaks traditional Spanish, classmate Lorena Baten Mejia’s first language is Quiche (also spelled K’iche and pronounced KEE-chay), a Mayan language. She learned how to speak Spanish when first attending school in Guatemala to communicate with her Spanish-speaking teachers.

Other students can’t, however. And many have very limited education.

“The challenge here is that the newcomers that we had 15 years ago predominately spoke Spanish or Vietnamese, or a language that we had access to translation,” Gainesville Superintendent Merrianne Dyer said. “These regional dialects are just something that we’ve not ever encountered, a child that’s that old that doesn’t speak English or Spanish.”

The Gainesville City Schools system has had 24 students with a similar background enroll this school year, with the majority coming in since January. They’re from Central America, mostly Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.

Cindy Tu, Hall County’s interim English for Speakers of Other Languages coordinator, said she thinks only three student refugees from Central America are enrolled in the county school district, but that’s been since January. She expects that number to rise.

The students are coming as refugees from the Office of Refugee Resettlement, according to Laura Herrington, Gainesville’s English for Speakers of Other Languages director. She said some students are living with family members, but most were placed with host families through that office.

Why they are here

Both Gomez Mendoza and Baten Mejia are from Guatemala, though from different areas. Gomez Mendoza is from Huehuetenango, an area that encompasses both farmland and factories.

Coca-Cola, Pepsi and petroleum are in the area, he said, but it’s difficult to find work. His older brother talked about going to the United States, and Gomez Mendoza listened.

“I talked with my uncle who was here,” he said as interpreted by Mandy Wade, chairwoman of Gainesville High’s ESOL department. “We talked a lot with him. They asked me if I want to come study. I asked, ‘Do you think I can make it?’ They said ‘yes.’ So we decided to try.”

They traveled by bus to Reynosa, a Mexican town along the United States border, where they stayed for several nights before making their first attempt at crossing the Rio Grande.

“They had these big, floatable boats,” he said. “They put eight of us in a boat, two by two, by two by two. They first told us everything was going to be OK, it was going to be easy. But what they don’t tell you is the river was very, very choppy that day. It was very dangerous.”

The group with Gomez Mendoza and his brother made it across, but cameras along the border soon zeroed in on their group. Though border patrol agents caught the rest of the group, Gomez Mendoza and his brother managed to escape.

However, they had no way to go any farther in the United States, so went back over the border and waited in Reynosa again for further help.

“They came and got us early and we crossed again,” he said. “Immigration didn’t come. We thought everything was good, everything was quiet. We walked a whole day around the canyons and landforms. We went across the desert. Then the helicopters started coming.”

They were detained. Though his 19-year-old brother was deported, Gomez Mendoza got to stay as a minor refugee seeking asylum from his home country. He was sent to live with his uncle in Gainesville.

He doesn’t have many positive things to say about Guatemala.

“What do you want to know?” he asked. “The violence? The bad government right now?

“My whole life, it’s been that way all over the place. There are more dangerous places now. There’s no control. Basically the citizens have to make their own justice. There’s no government control.”

He described how a person could call the police on a rapist. Authorities may come and take the criminal away, but the man would be back later committing the same crime.

“There’s people who kill. There’s people who burn stuff,” he said. “There’s kids my age who have been brought into these groups, like gangs. Drug trafficking and gangs of hitmen, too. Like, ‘I’ll pay you so much money to go and kill somebody.’”

Baten Mejia shared similar memories, though she never saw violence firsthand.

“I heard stories about people being raped,” she recalled, with Wade interpreting. “And rapists being taken away for a while, but not forever. That was bad.”

She was brought here by her parents, who have both been in the country for nearly seven years. While in Guatemala, she lived with her aunt in a town she wrote down as Xolcuay.

“When they are 15, they get married,” the 16-year-old said. “They don’t have a lot of life experiences. They don’t know any better, basically, and they have lots of children. One of the things that my dad said, one of the reasons he brought me here was because he didn’t want me to get married young.”

She came to the United States in July in the same manner as Gomez Mendoza. She said she knew the government here wouldn’t hurt her, since she was a minor.

“I was really, really tired when they got me,” she remembered. “I had already fallen asleep.”

She wasn’t certain about her papers, and Herrington and Wade weren’t, either. They know they have the refugee papers through the agency, but it’s still not clear what will happen to these students once they turn 18 or graduate from high school.

What is clear is they both think of America as the land of opportunity, and they both want to stay. Baten Mejia wants to go to college and become a doctor.

“To help poor people,” she said. “If you don’t have a lot of money, but you’re sick, I want to help.”

Gomez Mendoza said he is enjoying learning English and using technology.

“I can learn English and learn how to be bilingual,” he said. “I like all of my classes but also the computers with the English, because I can hear it and practice it.”

A growing concern

Many of the incoming students have had limited formal schooling. Gomez Mendoza’s ninth-grade education is an anomaly. Baten Mejia also had more education, though only through seventh grade.

But Herrington and Dyer said most of the students only have about a second-grade education. Refugees staying with host families must go to school, according to their contracts, Herrington said.

There are a couple of reasons why students don’t have that background in education. Many worked on farms with their families, so school took a back seat at certain times of the year. Also, once students get to a certain age, their families are expected to pay for school.

“What we’re looking at next year is if they remain with us and if this trend continues, which we believe it will, we’re looking at setting up a specialized classroom setting,” Dyer said. “It will help them learn English, to learn to read, and to learn basic math computational skills first. It’s just unrealistic to try to put these 17-, 18-year-olds in a high school (setting).”

Tu said Hall County’s system has an academy for those with low or interrupted formal schooling.

“They have to be 16 or older, because that setting has older children who have not graduated from high school,” she said. “But otherwise they have to go to a traditional middle school or high school, and it’s a huge obstacle because they come with a second-grade education that they have completed.

“So it’s hard on them and it’s hard on the school.”

The immediate concern for teachers and school officials is how to accommodate language barriers. The two main dialects the students speak, Wade said, are both Quiche and Chuj (pronounced choo), both branches of Mayan.

“We’ve had understanding problems,” Wade said. “Problems with understanding rules and things like that.”

She recalled how one student did not understand he could not check out of school without permission and he tried to get into a taxi to leave a few weeks ago.

“They don’t understand, even when you’re explaining it to them in Spanish,” she said.

Both Tu and Herrington are consulting with other school districts in the area who are experiencing a similar situation about how they use their resources. Herrington said she has communicated closely with the Dalton and Whitfield County systems.

“A lot of students are coming in,” she said. “They have concerns there.”

In the meantime, the students also must take the state-required tests like the Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests and the End of Course Tests.

The only way someone can be exempt from the CRCT language arts and social studies portions, Tu said, was if their language proficiency was so limited there was no way they could access the test content.

That exemption only carries for the first year; the next year they would have to take the test, regardless if they’re up to grade level or language proficient. And even in their first year, they must take the math and science portions of the test.

Of course, the test results will count toward the school’s results.

But though it’s a challenge, Dyer feels the schools are better equipped to handle it than they would have been years ago when Spanish-speaking immigrants first began entering school systems in droves.

“Fifteen years ago, we had a similar newcomers program,” she said. “That’s what we’re looking at again, but a smarter newcomers program because we’ve had more experience.”


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