For 14-year-old Yashua Cantillano, life in New Orleans is an improvement.
But that's not saying much.
Just three months ago, Yashua was in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, dodging gang members. He says they would drive by his school, guns visible, threatening to kill him, his younger brother — Yashua's whole family.
"We'd hide all day," Yashua says, "and that kept us from going to school."
After crossing the U.S. border illegally, he came to New Orleans and ultimately enrolled at Carver Prep, a small charter school on the city's east side.
In just the past year, the number of so-called "unaccompanied minors" from Central America — like Yashua — has nearly doubled in the U.S. Many are now being held in detention centers. But some 55,000 have been released to relatives already living in the country, and many have since made their way into the public schools.
In the past, Carver Prep in New Orleans saw just a handful of English-language learners (ELL) in a given year. But this fall, Principal Ben Davis says, the school has enrolled 59 — a fifth of its population. And the vast majority of those kids are unaccompanied minors.
This surge, Davis says, has stretched his resources. "A kid coming from Honduras and from a school that's been ravaged by gang violence, or, in some cases, kids who haven't been in school since sixth grade, they have very, very unique challenges."
Of those challenges, one was not new to Carver: the trauma caused by violence. Its students traditionally come from some of the city's most impoverished, crime-ridden neighborhoods.
"I was speaking with one of our [students] whose friend was shot right around the corner from his home," Davis says. "So the rates of trauma across the board in our student population are really, really high."
But that life of violence is just the beginning of Davis' challenges.
The Carver Prep Safety Net
Every student at Carver is paired with an adviser. The title doesn't do justice to the skill set required. Each adviser is like a second parent, giving students a place to turn for help and support while giving the school an early warning system for kids on the edge.
Carver Prep's tiny ELL program is responsible for coordinating students' instruction along with myriad services, including extra tutoring, medical care and emotional supports to help them make the transition.
Regardless of skill level, all of the school's ELL students are kept together for most of the day.
Yashua, for one, seems to be adapting.
"They're teaching me really well," he says, "and I'm going to get a computer to learn English."
The added cost of educating one unaccompanied minor, Carver Principal Ben Davis estimates, is close to $2,400.
The help he gets from the federal government: about $200.
The state of Louisiana insists it doesn't have the money to help meet these students' needs. And the bad news for Davis is that more money from Washington, if it comes, likely won't arrive until next spring at the earliest.
NPR reached out to the U.S. Department of Education, but officials there declined a request for an interview and instead provided a list of guidelines and federal programs from which schools can eventually draw funds.
Back in July, Education Secretary Arne Duncan went on CNN to talk with reporter Christine Romans about unaccompanied minors:
ROMANS: "I mean, as an educator, when you see pictures of these children in government detention centers, these are kids who should be in school. What do you think?"
DUNCAN: "Well, it's absolutely brutal. I say its inhumane. So we're going to continue to work hard to get this done."
"Who's we?" asks Mark Krikorian, director of the Center for Immigration Studies.
Krikorian supports tighter immigration controls, and he takes issue with how the Obama administration has handled the surge of unaccompanied minors. "The secretary of education is saying we have a responsibility, but the taxpayers of New Orleans and other communities are the ones left holding the bag."
While Krikorian admits it's "a perfectly natural reaction to want to help these kids," he argues that the U.S. can't open its doors to every child who comes here fleeing poverty and violence. The burden is simply too great for schools like Carver Prep to bear.
"You're Breaking The Law"
While some New Orleans schools are doing their best to meet the needs of unaccompanied minors, others have begun to push back, says Christy Rosales-Fajardo.
In an abandoned strip mall not far from Carver Prep, Fajardo, a social worker with the community organization VAYLA, has been on the phone most of the day. Her job: to reassure parents that New Orleans' schools won't — and can't, legally — abandon their kids.
For weeks now, Fajardo has been pleading with schools to reach out to these parents and at least translate bulletins into Spanish. She has also been fielding calls from parents complaining that some school bus drivers have refused to pick up kids who "look Hispanic." Fajardo's biggest concern, though, is that some schools still don't understand: They cannot turn away unaccompanied minors.
"When a school is requesting documentation or previous report card or proof of residency, we are calling the school and saying, 'You're breaking the law,' " Fajardo says.
That law came out of a 1982 U.S. Supreme Court case, Plyler v. Doe. The Court ruled that children who enter the U.S. illegally are still guaranteed the same public school benefits of citizens and legal immigrants.
That means Yashua Cantillano can attend Carver Prep, where Principal Ben Davis is determined to give the boy a good education — even if it means using money and resources he can't spare, with little help on the horizon.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This year alone, 57,000 kids from Central America have crossed into the U.S. illegally without their parents. And we're going to focus now on what this migration has meant for America's classrooms. Most of the children who cross the border, though they may face deportation, are still allowed to enroll in public schools. NPR's Claudio Sanchez found one school in New Orleans that has seen its population of unaccompanied minors explode.
CLAUDIO SANCHEZ, BYLINE: Carver Prep, a small charter school in East New Orleans, has never had very many Latino students - until now.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
CHARLES APONZA: Class, what am I?
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS: You are a teacher.
APONZA: Good. What are you?
SANCHEZ: This fall, math teacher Charles Aponza is doing double duty because of the surge of mostly Honduran teenagers who've enrolled at Carver after entering the U.S. illegally this past summer.
APONZA: OK, (speaking Spanish). Stand up. All right.
SANCHEZ: Three months ago, 14-year-old Yashua Cantillano was in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, hiding from the Maras or gang members who he says had threatened him and his younger brother and kept them from going to school.
YASHUA CANTILLANO: (Speaking Spanish).
SANCHEZ: We'd hide all day, says Yashua, because gang members with guns cruised in front of our school, threatening to kill our families. Today, Yashua is a ninth grader learning English at Carver Prep.
YASHUA: (Speaking Spanish).
SANCHEZ: They're teaching me really well, he says. And I'm going to get a computer to learn English. Yashua's teachers say he's a bright kid. But all 14 and 15-year-olds are kept together, regardless of their skill level. These kids - all 59 of them - now make up a fifth of the student body at Carver Prep - a huge jump. Their instruction in English is based on a thorough evaluation.
JESSICA BARD: They will be tested to determine their level of Spanish, as well as English.
SANCHEZ: Jessica Bard oversees all instruction for English language learners or ELLs.
BARD: And they'll also be taking basically a language proficiency test, which has a speaking part, as well as a reading, writing and listening section.
SANCHEZ: That's just to get them started on their schoolwork. Principal Ben Davis says their emotional well-being is another matter.
BEN DAVIS: A kid who's coming from Honduras and has come from a school that's been ravaged by gang violence - or in some cases, we've had kids who haven't been in school since sixth grade - they have very, very unique challenges.
SANCHEZ: For some of these kids, Davis says, even reuniting with family in the U.S. has been traumatic. After years of separation, they might as well be living with strangers. They come to school stressed and anxious. And that affects their learning. But Davis says this is nothing new for his school.
DAVIS: Because our general student population is dealing with pretty high rates of trauma.
SANCHEZ: Most of Carver Prep's regular students come from New Orleans' most impoverished, crime-ridden neighborhoods.
DAVIS: I was speaking to one of our scholars just yesterday, whose friend was shot right around the corner from his own home. So the rates of trauma across the board in our student population are really, really, really, really high.
SANCHEZ: Davis says every student at the school has an advisor who's like a second parent that students can turn to for help.
DAVIS: We also though don't want to wait to find out of a kid, you know, crying in class - breaking down. So we give kids mental health screeners at the beginning of the year.
SANCHEZ: Are you getting extra money to pay for all this, I ask?
DAVIS: Very little.
SANCHEZ: $200 per student, says Davis, no more. Although the added cost of educating these kids, he says, is closer to $2,400 per student.
Louisiana State Department of Education says it doesn't have extra money to help cover these students' needs and is not expecting more from Washington. U.S. Education Department officials declined to comment on tape for this story and instead provided a list of guidelines and federal programs that schools can draw funds from eventually. But back in July, here's how U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan responded to CNN reporter Christine Romans' question about unaccompanied minors.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVAL RECORDING)
CHRISTINE ROMANS: I mean, as an educator, when you see pictures of these children who are in, you know, government detention centers - these are kids who should be in school - well, what do you think?
ARNE DUNCAN: Well, it's absolutely - you know, it's brutal. I'd say it's inhumane. So we're going to continue to work very, very hard to get this done.
MARK KRIKORIAN: Who's we? That's the thing. Who's we?
SANCHEZ: Mark Krikorian, director of the Center for Immigration Studies, supports tighter control of immigration. He says it's not surprising that some Americans are angry about the burden that these unaccompanied minors have put on local schools.
KRIKORIAN: The secretary of education is saying we have a responsibility, but the taxpayers of New Orleans and other local communities are the ones left holding the bag.
SANCHEZ: On the other hand, says Krikorian...
KRIKORIAN: It's a perfectly natural reaction to, you know, to want to help these kids.
SANCHEZ: Still, Krikorian argues, the U.S. should not open its doors to kids from all over the world fleeing from poverty and violence.
KRIKORIAN: Yes, things are lousy in Honduras. But, you know, things are lousy in a lot of countries.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHILD SCREAMING)
SANCHEZ: Not far from Carver Prep in an abandoned strip mall, Christy Rosales-Fajardo, a social worker with VAYLA, a community organization, is scrambling to help Central American kids and families deal with school.
CHRISTY ROSALES-FAJARDO: (Speaking Spanish).
SANCHEZ: On the phone with parents, Fajardo tries to sound reassuring. She's been pleading with schools to translate advisories and bulletins into Spanish. She is fielded calls from parents complaining that some bus drivers have refused to pick up kids who look Hispanic. Fajardo says some schools aren't even sure they have to enroll these kids.
ROSALES-FAJARDO: When a school is, you know, requesting documentation or a previous report card or proof of residency, we are calling the school and saying, hey, you're breaking the law. You should have your school prepared to receive these students.
SANCHEZ: The law Fajardo is referring to is based on a 1982 case known as Plyler v. Doe, in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that children who enter the U.S. illegally are still guaranteed the same public school benefits of citizens and legal immigrants.
The impact of that law has now been magnified, of course, because the number of unaccompanied minors from Central America who've crossed the U.S.-Mexico border has almost doubled in the last year according to government figures. Again, Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies...
KRIKORIAN: I don't like to have an illegal alien - children in the schools. On the other hand, throwing kids out of school all at once - it's not prudent.
SANCHEZ: So for now, public schools like Carver Prep in New Orleans and across the country appear to be on their own. Claudio Sanchez, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.