GAINESVILLE — Fifty-four Central American refugee students, some of whom cannot read or write, have been moved from their schools into a separate program at a Hall County public school, Lanier Charter Career Academy.
The students, who crossed the border in precarious conditions to escape violence in their home countries, do not speak English. Their Spanish dialects are unfamiliar to the district's Spanish teachers, and some have had little schooling.
One student, a 14-year-old, has never been to school. Some others are able to read and write in their native language, but the dialect barrier has made it difficult to assess each student's needs.
"We decided to put them together at one place so we could provide the resources they needed," said Eloise Barron, the district's assistant superintendent for teaching and learning. "It may or may not be a permanent arrangement. If we find that they can succeed in their schools, they will go back."
The students come to Lanier Charter from East Hall, Johnson and West Hall high schools and South Hall Middle School. Barron said a few of the 54 have already returned to their high schools at the request of their legal guardians.
Barron said there is no special federal or state funding for the program, but it is not costing the district any money beyond what it already spends per student. The students are counted in the enrollment numbers the state uses to determine its funding for the districts, and students are using textbooks and computers the district already owned.
The students, ages 14 to 18, are learning English, basic skills in math and skills needed for everyday life in the United States.
"We're teaching skills in the U.S. that will make you not only able to get a job, but to keep a job," said Lanier Charter Principal Cindy Blakely. "For students who are fairly capable and not too far behind, our hope would be within a year or two that they are remediated enough to return to their high school, and also that they are able to live in the community and feel a part of the community."
Students are being taught about life in the U.S., from the existence of public libraries to how the bus system works, as teachers try to learn more about where the students came from and what kind of help they need.
"Some of these kids have been so traumatized," Barron said, "but they seem to be so happy to be together and to have somebody say, ‘We can help you.'"
For some, this may be their first experience with a safe environment.
"We have one or two students who are going to be parents because of some devastating situations that happened to them on their way to the U.S.," Blakely said. "We had one who was pulled out of school after what is their equivalent of the fifth grade to be trained as a soldier. His parents sent him to the U.S. because they were afraid he'd be killed."
Blakely said the staff at Lanier Charter is particularly sensitive to the needs of at-risk students who have been through some trauma, though some of the situations with the refugee students are more extreme.
"I'm so proud of our staff and the way they have jumped right in," Blakely said.
She said staff is meeting each day after the students go home to talk over what has been learned and how to do a better job teaching and communicating with the students.
In addition to what they went through before arriving in Georgia, the students are now in a strange country where they do not speak the language, far removed from the family members who continue to live under violent regimes in Central America.
"Some of the students are very fragile," Blakely said. "It's just trying to provide the right amount of support."
Barron said the purpose of separating the students into their own program is partly to assess what type of support is needed. It's also to work through the communication barrier.
"There are 21 different Spanish dialects," Barron said.
Blakely said it's important to know the students are eager to become part of the community, and to remember how much they've been through to get here.
"One girl was assaulted coming across with the person who was paid to bring her," she said. "I can't imagine what that must have been like for a family, to know that would be a safer situation than to stay where they live."