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Connecticut schools adapt to enrollment spike of unaccompanied alien minors

Kaomi Goetz

This fall's official enrollment numbers will this year include an enrollment jump of unaccompanied minors, mostly from Central America. Federal authorities say nearly 400 childrenhave been detained and released to relatives in the state so far this year. One school district in Fairfield County has started a new arrivals center to address these new students. 

Catalina Horak is Colombian-American, and runs a non-profit called Neighbors Link in Stamford, Conn. It provides English classes and support services for immigrants. She's cautious when talking about the unaccompanied minors who are now living in her community. 

"We're very careful about what we ask them because [their immigration case] is a very sensitive issue," Horak said. "We work very hard to develop trust and make sure they feel comfortable," she added. 

Children under the age of 18 who try to cross the southern border of the U.S. on their own aren't new. But according to US authorities, the sheer volume has tripled in just two years. This year, officials estimate the number will reach 60,000 children.Most of the kids come from Honduras or Guatemala. They're trying to escape violence, lawlessness and poverty. After being detained, the children are placed with relatives or other sponsors in the U.S. while awaiting the outcome of their legal cases. Horak says they've worked with a dozen kids who have just arrived in the last few months. 

"This morning we were helping a young, 16-year old boy," she said recently, " to register for high school." The boy hadn't seen his father for 12 years. He was detained at the border and released to the father a few weeks earlier. "And now he's here with a legal case," she said. 

By all accounts, it's a dangerous trip. Most of the kids are brought to the border by smugglers. Stories of rape, brutality, and theft are common. The smugglers will often leave the kids in plain sight to be picked up by U.S. border patrol. In the past, the goal for these children was to evade authorities. Now, being detained and having their deportation cases processed is preferred. The kids are then reunited with relatives already in the country, some of whom are here illegally themselves. And they're enrolling in local schools.

"So, introduce yourself to each other," Westhill High School teacher Ellen Townsend directs about 20 students in her English conversation class one recent morning. "As if you are seeing each other for the first time," she said. 

Most of the students were teenage males. Townsend said she suspects several have only been in the country for a very short time. The class is part of a new arrivals program at the high school that began this fall - where officials estimate at least 40 unaccompanied minors have enrolled at the Stamford school since the start of the school year. The incoming students are assessed and guided to several options, including a focus on basic, conversational English, and even beginner-level instruction in other subjects, too. In Townsend's class, two students stand and face each other. 

"Hi," a student named Brendan began. 

"Hi," a classmate named Armando answered. 

After exchanging their names, they ask each other in halting English where each other are from.

"I'm from Guatemala," Brendan said. "Oh, I'm from Guatemala, too," Armando said. 

"How do you like living here in the United States?" Brendan, a little more comfortable in English, asked. 

"Oh, one year," Armando misunderstood. "How about you?" Armando asked. 

"One year and four months," Brendan answered. 

The exercise is over, and Townsend tells the rest of the class to pair up and practice their own conversations. It's clear to administrators that putting the students into mainstream classes with pull-out English conversation classes would be difficult for the learners. Instead the program allows them to focus on gaining proficiency in English at their level. More advanced students can be shifted towards a bilingual program. But Stamford Public Schools Superintendent Winnifred Hamilton said there are also concerns beyond the academics.

"With students are coming here from countries where they tried to escape, [we have to ask ourselves] did they lose a parent, did they see something that was traumatic, do they need support services, including mental health services? It's those kinds of issues that have to be explored," Hamilton said.

But not every district was as prepared. In Norwalk, officials have said 43 unaccompanied minors enrolled just one week before the school year began. The district had to juggle resources quickly. Mike Lyons is chair of the district's board of education. He said the situation has been a challenge for school districts like Norwalk "who, of course, have to bear 100 percent of the cost of the problem since the federal government will relocate them to your community, but provide absolutely no funding to support [the children]."

Lyons estimates the additional students will cost NPS nearly $300,000 this year in reallocated resources. He said he expects this trend to continue. Immigrant advocates report the kids' deportation cases are being delayed by a backlog in the court system. There's also not enough available pro bono legal help to assist the minors, which is also delaying decisions. And officials say that means the new arrivals, and their educational needs, are something schools will have to address for many years to come. 

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