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Number of refugee students in Gainesville schools unknown
Officials estimate some 30 of 200 high school English learners are from Central America
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As children from Central America have fled to the U.S. as refugees, some have wound up in Gainesville schools, but officials said they don’t keep track of how many.

“That’s not a question that we ask,” said Laura Herrington, the district’s director of Title III, a federal program that includes English language learning.

Still, Herrington said the students are there even if there isn’t an exact count.

“I know that we have some who speak dialect, and the dialects that they speak are indicative of some countries in Central America,” she said. “We haven’t asked our students to tell us their stories yet.”

The refugees, she said, are educated in the same program as other students who learn English as a foreign language.

Herrington estimated 30 of about 200 high school students learning English are newly arrived from Central America this year. There likely are more in middle and elementary school, but she doesn’t have a number.

“Last year, I think we had 15 at the high school level. I’d say we have doubled that this year at the high school level,” Herrington said.

Some 1,154 children came to Georgia through the federal office of refugee resettlement between Jan. 1 and July 7 this year.

According the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, an average of 7,000 to 8,000 children enter the Unaccompanied Alien Children program each year, and 93 percent of them from El Salvador, Guatemala or Honduras. The children often come to the United States to escape violence, abuse or persecution, to seek family members or to find work. They sometimes are brought into the country by human trafficking rings, according to the department.

The United Nations has pushed the U.S. to treat children from those three countries as refugees displaced by armed conflict, as drug traffickers and street gangs have made the three-country region one of the world’s most violent.

Last month, the Obama administration began a program to give refugee status to some children from those countries in response to the influx of unaccompanied minors entering the country illegally. Under the program, legal immigrants from those countries can request that children related to them be resettled in the U.S. as refugees.

The program will allow children to gain refugee status through a screening process in their native countries rather than cross the border illegally and face screening afterward. There were 4,000 slots allocated for refugees from Central America and the Caribbean for next year, a fraction of the more than 66,0000 unaccompanied children apprehended crossing the border in the last year.

Hall schools have moved about 50 students with interrupted schooling into a separate program at Lanier Charter Career Academy, where they learn about life in America along with English.

Gainesville schools have put all of the students into the existing English for Speakers of Other Languages program.

Herrington said older students from Central America are likely to need the most academic help because they are more likely to have had school interruptions.

“The biggest concern we had was making sure that we could identify the high school students because if they happen to have limited formal schooling, that brought in a different kind of educational need or educational plan for those students,” she said.

Students who are learning English as a foreign language are placed into the district’s English for Speakers of Other Languages program, which focuses on language acquisition, not general education. When non-English speaking students have holes in their overall education, a different approach is needed.

“If you’re missing some of those foundational skills, before just delving right into, ‘Here’s your second language; let’s get into it,’ you have to kind of go in and lay the foundation,” Herrington said.

When students enter the system from non-English speaking countries, they take a standardized test designed to assess their language proficiency. This determines which level of the program they will enter, but it doesn’t show educators where the students rank academically in their native languages.

Instead, educators talk to the students, most of whom are able to speak conventional Spanish as a second language, with the local dialect as a first language, Herrington said.

They also try to learn as much as they can from the students’ previous schools.

“We have asked all of our students to bring us transcripts or anything they have from their native countries,” Herrington said. “Sometimes we will get a fax from Central America.”

English language learners, including refugees, take some of their classes with English-speaking students, courses such as art or P.E. that aren’t tested. Other classes sometimes are taught in what the district calls a sheltered environment. Those classes are taught in English but spend more time on core content knowledge.

“They are really focusing on the main concepts of a certain content area and eliminated any extras,” such as experiments in science classes, Herrington said.

Refugee students learning English are given standardized tests in their new language, along with other students.

At the middle school level, refugee students and new English learners in the district are placed into a language transition program.

“Research has shown that students coming in at middle school age levels had a difficult time transitioning,” Herrington said. “That may just be because the adolescent time is difficult.”

Middle school students take elective courses with the general student population, and may have extra instruction in English.

“That was already in place in the middle school (before the increase in refugees), so we really didn’t have to do anything,” Herrington said. The students fit easily into the existing program.

Herrington said elementary students have the easiest transitions.

“Usually, the younger ones have been in school, so we just put them right into our elementary classes, and they receive ESOL instruction,” she said.

Herrington said she’s talked with educators in other counties, including Dawson, Forsyth and Whitfield, about how they work with refugees.

“Everybody seems to have just a small cluster of students coming from Central America,” she said.

Herrington said the influx of refugee students was expected.

“We didn’t design a new program for this year, but we did anticipate there was a possibility we would get more (refugees) this year, so I think we were prepared,” she said.


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