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How the U-46 school district is trying to help a growing number of newcomer migrant students

A sign outside of Larsen Middle School in Elgin reads "Bienvenidos estudiantes Larsen"
Peter Medlin
Larsen Middle School in Elgin

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A small group of students are practicing how to order food in English. This is Larsen Middle School's “English Club.” They meet a few times a week to sharpen their language skills and make new friends. Some even come to keep their Spanish strong after spending all day in English classes.

Andrea Carrera-Valdez is a 7th-grade English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher. She’s leading them through listening tests after they watch scenes from “Beauty and the Beast” with subtitles.

“We play clips mainly in English," she said, "so they can listen, because in their houses they're just talking in Spanish, so they don't get used to listening to English."

Carrera-Valdez has been seeing more newcomer students over the past few years. That’s true for the district as a whole too. Some northern Illinois school districts are seeing an increase in migrant students over the past few years. One of them is U-46 in Elgin, the state’s 2nd-largest school district.

Just this fall, U-46 added nearly 700 newcomer students -- some of whom come from families seeking asylum in the U.S. They’re from countries like Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia, and Guatemala. They also get students from places like India and Ukraine. Last year, they had 70 new Ukrainian students.

When newcomer students arrive, their first stop is the Family Welcome Center. Brenda Escobedo is the center’s coordinator. It’s where families can register their kids and where they conduct testing, but families often come to the district with needs that extend beyond what the district can provide -- whether it be housing, immigration, or work.

“Every new family receives a folder with all the resources available in the community," said Escobedo, "so they can see it and review everything that applies to them, and sometimes they're kind of shy and they don't want to share everything that they need."

Throughout the school year, the district has been hosting newcomer parent support group events where parents can ask questions about where they can find their kids’ grades, how to contact school counselors and receive district communication. At the last one, they also had food and free winter coats.

At the school level, staff have also formed newcomer groups this year. Marisol Reyna is an English Language Learner teacher at Larsen Middle School. The groups are comprised of the teachers and staff who work with them the most and try to foster a sense of belonging in the building. It helps that 75% of Larsen’s students are Hispanic too.

“At the end of the year, we had many newcomers come in the last two months of school,” said Reyna. “My brain just started spinning, like we need to do something, we can't just throw them in and say, ‘Good luck!’ because they come with so much [mental baggage].”

She says they usually only have a few days' notice that a newcomer is arriving. And because, as she'd put it, "they come with so much," she says mental health support for newcomer students is crucial.

“I wish more people knew about everything that they go through to get here, especially some families and have traveled by foot all the way from Panama," said Reyna. "They go through the deserts, the forest, all of that -- and kids are old enough to remember all of that now. They come with all of that here, and we expect them to be academically ready to learn.”

Some of them have to leave family and friends behind.

Ziomara Gil is a resident administrator, an administrator in training at U-46. She says it’s always a challenge to have enough mental health support. Those positions are difficult for many schools to staff, especially when you need a Spanish-speaking school counselor or social worker.

“Having the personnel, the staff available all the time, that can be a struggle,” she said. “That's definitely I think an area that I would say we could use a little bit more maybe.”

Gil says they’ve been doing small group counseling to try to provide as much support to the students as possible. She’s seen some students, understandably, get emotional reflecting on their journey. They also encourage older newcomers to become leaders to help younger kids.

She says they also come across challenges you might not consider.

“We have students who have interrupted education, and they don't have any documents, they don't have any way to prove anything," said Gil. "So, there’s a limbo that they can [find themselves in]."

It’s easier for younger students. They can usually just place them with kids in their age group, but they’ve had 17-year-old high-school students in freshman-level classes due to a lack of credits.

Countries like Venezuela are also on a different school year schedule. They finish the school year in November, so when they arrive, it can be hard to know where to place them.

And staff wants newcomer students to have the opportunity to be normal kids: make friends, go on field trips, and play sports.

Gil remembers a high school student who came last year and just wanted to play volleyball. He asked for a volleyball T-shirt and when the games were going to be. But, they weren’t sure if his international credits would count. But they advocated with the IHSA and got him the chance to play.

“He made it up to the varsity team when he got in," she said. "His face, his demeanor, everything was just so happy. He went from wanting just a volleyball t-shirt to being on the varsity team."

At the end of the day, Reyna says to remember that these are just kids, many of whom have been through a lot. And it's important to help them start to address that and find their place in their new school, new community, and new country, so they can start to thrive.

Peter joins WNIJ as a graduate of North Central College. He is a native of Sandwich, Illinois.