Rhode Island Schools Take in Central American Migrants; Director of Immigration Law Clinic at Roger Williams University Weighs In

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Rhode Island schools take in Central American migrants
MATT O'BRIEN, Associated Press

 

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — One of Murkje Dekoe's students was pregnant and spent her weekends working long hours in a cranberry bog. Others spent nights toiling in factories and high-end restaurants.

But despite the daily challenges faced by them and other migrant children from Central America, they show up each weekday morning in Dekoe's classroom at Mt. Pleasant High School.

Federal figures show the U.S. government has placed 503 Central American migrant children in Rhode Island since 2013 after they entered the country without a parent. Providence school administrators have enrolled about 225 unaccompanied minors, mostly Guatemalans, who joined relatives already living in the city.

Teachers and administrators said they're trying to do their best to teach and counsel students who arrived with a number of challenges, from a lack of formal education to emotional conflict at home living with relatives they barely know or haven't seen for a decade.

"This morning I asked Leo why he put his head down. He worked until 4 in the morning," Dekoe said outside her classroom last week. "I have the highest respect for these students. For them, education is their way out. And as an educator it's my responsibility to give them hope and help them believe in the American dream."

The government has placed more than 100,000 unaccompanied minors from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador with adult sponsors in communities nationwide. Many crossed the border after fleeing violence in their home countries. They are expected to attend school while they seek legal status in immigration court.

Deborah Gonzalez, director of an immigration law clinic at Roger Williams University, said the Providence, Central Falls and Pawtucket school districts have done a good job registering and accommodating the challenging population but some others have dragged their feet.

Gonzalez said she tried to intervene when hurdles kept a 17-year-old boy from enrolling in one Newport high school last year. Gonzalez said she's not sure if the boy was able to enroll elsewhere before turning 18, when education is no longer compulsory in Rhode Island. Newport school administrators did not return calls or an email for comment about the student.

Those districts that do accommodate the students said it's not easy with the limited federal funding attached to unaccompanied migrant children.

Central Falls Schools Superintendent Victor Capellan said his district has created a special program for students with limited or interrupted formal education that gives them extra academic and socioemotional supports.

Soledad Barreto, who directs the English learner programs at Providence schools, said the unaccompanied Central American students she works with have some of the district's highest attendance rates. Most of the Guatemalan students are fluent in Spanish but speak Quiche, an indigenous language, at home.

"They're very eager to learn and they're very eager to learn English," she said.

 

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