How Dallas' Schools Are Preparing for the Surge of Kids from Central America

Exactly one year ago, Dallas ISD's Student Intake Center began taking responsibility for every immigrant student coming into the district. The Center focuses on processing the kids who have never attended American schools before, by checking immunization records and other documents, and evaluating their level of education. The Center is accommodating a quickly growing number of kids entering the school district.

"In the 2013 to 2014 school year, by around April we were serving about 639 kids at the Center," says DISD spokesman André Riley, who was careful to point out that the Center did not distinguish which kids were unaccompanied minors, only noting which students were new to the United States. "In 2012 to 2013, there were 433 kids. 2011 to 2012, 253 kids. So it's been going up."

It's a common theme in school districts across the state.

DISD has long been seeing the rising number in immigrant kids to the district -- and not just Central American kids, but children from Myanmar, Iraq, and dozens of other countries around the world -- but the increased numbers are only beginning to affect smaller districts across the state. By some estimates, Texas could be seeing about 25,000 to 27,000 unaccompanied minors, most from Central America, incorporated into the public education system this school year.

Academic intake specialist Joy Hinson has worked at DISD's Student Intake Center since November 2013. She says a considerable amount of students from Honduras have been serviced this year and many of them appear to have been actively attending school because the Honduran school year runs from February to November. It's likely that many of the students' educations were disrupted, Hinson says, but there is not a blanket explanation as to why. "We don't ask the families why they come here," she says. "We just accept them and put them in school and try to get them the best support possible."

The federal Department of Education issued state guidelines yesterday on how to handle the kids' cases, but the Texas Education Agency has lingering concerns. While the law states that every child, regardless of immigration status, is entitled to a public education, it is more fuzzy on how to approach funding for these kids.

"It's hard to predict whether a district will have two or 10,000 new kids," says Debbie Ratcliffe, a spokesperson for the Texas Education Agency. "We let schools know that if they have a large influx of new students, they could adjust funding requests to us so that they didn't have to wait until the end of the school year."

Ratcliffe says certain allowances will have to be made for these new students, comparing it to the students that came into Texas after Hurricane Katrina. "When Katrina hit, it brought 45,000 kids to Texas right when school started that year," she says. "And so we had to make some special provisions for them. That's the closest situation we have for the current surge, but that situation was more predictable because these kids had no homes to return to."

Unaccompanied kids who are apprehended and placed in federal shelters are given immunizations and provided on-site education during their stay. When they are released to parents are relatives, or placed in the foster system, they are encouraged to enroll in public school while their immigration case is processed by the court system. Ratcliffe says that if these kids do not have previous documentation of an education, upfront diagnostic tests are often necessary as well.

In Dallas, the biggest issue is filling the shortage of bilingual teachers to communicate with the kids. "Everyone is looking for Spanish-speaking teachers, especially in Texas," says Riley. "It's a very specialized skill. And while there are more teachers gaining that skill every year, the need is also great."

Riley says that while the the flood of unaccompanied children has skyrocketed into the public eye in recent months, it's nothing new to the district. "We've always served a large number of immigrant students, and they come from many areas including Central America," he says. "We have a great understanding of how to welcome these kids into our community. So whether it's a small or larger number, this is something we do. All we know is that a student is enrolling, and from that point we're just trying to serve them."

The members of the staff at DISD's Student Intake Center say that the families who seek guidance have different stories to tell. Some say they were forced to leave their homes or that they paid someone to bring them to the U.S. One or two of the children have mentioned that they made their way through Mexico from Central America on the dangerous network of trains commonly referred to as The Beast.

"We know that for most of the students that come through here, we are the first people they meet from the district. We are their first encounter with the district," says Amanda Clymer, a supervisor for the center. "The whole staff, we all have a heart for what we're doing for the students."

Obed Manuel contributed reporting.