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DeKalb High School sees an uptick in newcomer students that likely includes asylum seekers

Inside an empty classroom at DeKalb High School
Spencer Tritt
Inside an empty classroom at DeKalb High School

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The DeKalb City Council began discussing the possibility of applying for state funding to support migrants in the area. But to qualify, they’ll need to show there’s an existing need.

Schools may certainly serve asylum seekers, but may not have documentation to verify their status.

Gail Cappaert is a multilingual case manager at DeKalb High School. She helps newcomers ease their way into life as a DeKalb High School student.

“I am kind of welcoming them,” she said.

“We don't have a welcome center,” she said. “We're almost getting to the kind of numbers where we could think about that, but we have a very cohesive program.”

Newcomers are students who have arrived in the U.S. within the last year with limited English language instruction.

She said they receive about 10 newcomer students every school year, but this year was different.

“Right now we have 28. So, it's actually more than double,” she said, “that's just a huge class for us.”

She said the newcomers arrive in DeKalb through some family connection and come from around the world, including Venezuela, El Salvador and Sudan.

What she’s not certain of is their immigration status or the manner they arrived in the U.S.

“I may know that later about them, but that's not part of our intake,” she said. “So, I don't actually, honestly don't have that information.”

According to the 1982 Supreme Court ruling in Plyler v. Doe, public schools are prohibited from inquiring about a student or their parents’ immigration status.

Schools may have data on a student’s country of origin.

“They bring sometimes transcripts, or they bring, sometimes they bring health records from other countries.”

This is the kind of data that may not be sufficient for the state under a grant program that provides funds to municipalities to serve migrants in town.

The grant called Supporting Municipalities for Asylum Seeker Services considers qualifying recipients as asylum seekers who crossed the southern border on or after August of 2022.

When the City of Elgin successfully applied for the grant program, they partnered with three nonprofit groups, including Centro De Informacion, which serves asylum seekers through its Illinois Welcoming Center.

Within that program, they ask migrants to demonstrate documentation to verify their eligibility.

In DeKalb, Cappaert prods for other information to customize resources to meet their current needs.

“What have they learned in school before? What classes do they need? Do they need help getting acclimated? Do they have internet at home? Do they have the things they need to feel safe and healthy and get to school?” she said.

She finds that newcomers would benefit from more social and emotional support.

“I suspect some of them have had some trauma and difficult experiences. And so, I would like to see them have an opportunity to talk about it in some kind of a small therapeutic group,” she said.

She said food insecurity is an issue that newcomers have shared with her, despite that many of them have jobs.

“They're coming in, and they're working in a variety of situations to support their families to help,” she said.

Cappaert said she routinely reminds students about the food pantry located in the school.

In contrast, Cappaert said housing insecurity has not been an issue that newcomers have brought up to her.

“A lot of the newcomers I think, are living with extended family, but they're not necessarily identified as, as being homeless,” she said.

“So, I think that they consider living in community with extended family to be kind of a norm.”

However, under McKinney-Vento, which is a federal program for children experiencing homelessness, students who live doubled-up would be considered housing insecure.

For the 2022-2023 school year the number of high school students with inadequate housing more than doubled from the previous year. That is slightly higher than the district overall rate.

Cappaert finds that about a third of newcomers have an interrupted education.

“They may have come from an area where they weren't able to go to school,” she said.

“They may have spent some time in a refugee camp,” she said. "We have a lot of students that they've maybe gone through about fifth grade school, sixth grade.”

“And so, they haven't had a long time without that academic knowledge,” she said.

She said some students may not have ever used a computer, tasks that many take for granted. She said despite the hurdles "they can do it, and most of them are really excited to do it.”

The district plans for an ongoing influx of newcomers. Since last winter they've had another multilingual case manager position opened. In the meantime, she said two teachers are filling in and doing what are called overloads to ensure that all students receive an education.

A Chicago native, Maria earned a Master's Degree in Public Affairs Reporting from the University of Illinois Springfield . Maria is a 2022-2023 corps member for Report for America. RFA is a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues and communities. It is an initiative of The GroundTruth Project, a nonprofit journalism organization. Un residente nativo de Chicago, Maria se graduó de University of Illinois Springfield con una licenciatura superior en periodismo de gobierno.