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Latino school enrollment numbers remain steady in Hall, Gainesville
New Latino students replaced those who left
Centennial Arts Academy ESOL teacher Diana Drerup leads an ESOL second-grade class Friday through a lesson plan.

Gainesville City Schools Superintendent Merrianne Dyer thought Georgia House Bill 87 would mean a decrease in Hispanic enrollment. She thought fewer families would come to Gainesville from outside of the country.

But according to 2011 data, city schools are handling about the same number of students they were in 2010 so far.

"Percentagewise we have a decrease in the number of immigrants new to the country, but our first-day enrollment was still 54 percent Hispanic," Dyer said.

"We're very pleased to see the commitment they had to staying in our schools."

Hall County Schools' Hispanic enrollment for 2011 is following that trend, Superintendent Will Schofield said.

"We're not seeing any kind of difference in the last year, but it's a monumental difference from four or five years ago," he said. "We've gone from picking up between 700 and 1,000 immigrant students to 100 to 400 each year. What we've seen is a real slowdown. That number has reduced dramatically."

Although a number of Hispanic students did leave the area — something Dyer and Schofield attributed to the economy as much as the legislation — new students still enrolled to replace them.

"We currently have pockets of dip," Schofield said. "Some of our largely Hispanic schools have lost 30 to 50 students."

After House Bill 87, the Illegal Immigration Reform and Enforcement Act of 2011, took effect July 1, school officials in both systems weren't really sure what to prepare for.

"I don't think I anticipated anything," Schofield said. "The only thing we had to go on was rhetoric we heard across the state that immigrant families would leave the state in droves."

The most evident effect of the law is the level of uncertainty.

"There's a much higher level of anxiety of the parents that the students share somewhat," Dyer said.

Sandra Perry, English to Speakers of Other Languages coordinator for Hall County Schools, said students are going through testing now to determine their ESOL status.

Other effects exist, but school officials don't know the full significance yet.

"We have a lot of families that aren't living together. Lots of mothers and fathers are moving out of state while maintaining an apartment in Gainesville," Dyer said.

"We've heard a lot of Mississippi, Florida and North Carolina."

That leaves many 17- and 18-year-olds either living on their own as unaccompanied minors or acting as parents to younger siblings and relatives.

"There's likely a lot more than we know," Dyer said.

For these students, the school systems provide connections to resources and people to talk to, Dyer said.

"In some cases we've worked on recently, the child had to move into a new apartment. The primary thing we do is to be sure they're paying utilities," Dyer said. "It's when they hit those types of responsibilities."

Some students in this situation do not get money sent back from their family. They are truly on their own, Dyer said.

"A lot of kids don't tell anyone and they're afraid they can't keep going to school," she said. "The most important thing is our teachers just pitch in and help them, with emotional support if nothing else."

Perry noticed a similar trend in Hall schools.

"I think probably HB 87 has impacted that trend," she said. "If parents have been deported, students might have moved in with aunts and uncles."

Dyer said in 2010 the school system saw an enrollment spike when they did a midyear student count.

One reason she cited was families moving inside city limits to within walking distance of doctor's offices, shopping and employment to avoid having to drive everywhere and risk being pulled over and having their immigration status questioned.

"We're not counting on that growth, but it could occur, especially if people move in with relatives," she said.

If students came into the United States illegally as children and get caught and deported, school systems cannot do much on their behalf.

"They would just be counted as a dropout and the school would face the sentences," Dyer said.

These sentences include the student counting against the school on its Adequate Yearly Progress. If the school system could get proof a student was enrolled in a school in their new country, the local school would not face consequences.

However, Dyer said it was very difficult for students to actually get enrolled in schools in Mexico, as only a couple of states there accept records from the U.S. When students come from Mexico to the U.S., the reverse is true; not all students are enrolled in American schools with records.

"We've run into it a lot in the last several years," Dyer said. "We can't get records. We have to start from scratch."

Schofield said there are some residents who criticize local school systems for not taking a more active role enforcing immigration laws.

"The law says we educate students ages 5 until they leave us," Schofield said.

"That's not our issue. We've been charged to educate all who come and we'll continue to follow the letter of the law until it becomes our issue."

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