DALTON — The challenges presented by an influx of unaccompanied children and youths from Central America streaming across the southern border into the United States have reached Dalton.
Approximately 30 unaccompanied minors were admitted into the Dalton Public Schools district during the last school year, Superintendent Jim Hawkins said. It is not known whether more are coming with a new school year approaching.
Nabbed at the border while trying to cross into the country, the youths were sent to Dalton by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services while they wait for a date with a federal immigration judge. In the meantime, the youths are required, by law, to be admitted into a local school system. The immunizations necessary for enrollment, and all pertinent paperwork, were provided to the youths during their time in facilities in Arizona, New Mexico and Texas.
"The children that have come to us have trickled in over the previous year," said Caroline Woodason, assistant director for student support for Dalton Public Schools. "They have family or some semblance of family here, with whom they are housed. That is why they were sent here."
The newcomers — mostly teenagers — are some of the hundreds of thousands of youths fleeing drug-related strife in their home countries, seeking asylum in America.
The majority of the youths sent to Dalton are from the Central American nations of El Salvador and Guatemala, Woodason said. Though the number of new students has not been unmanageable for the school system, the youths bring with them an entirely unique set of challenges for the district to address.
"They have very, very limited amounts of education. In some cases, they cannot count to 10," Woodason said. "They can't turn on a computer. They've never even seen a computer. Also, they, in most cases, cannot speak English or Spanish."
Mostly, the students speak Mam or another language specific to their region.
"There is no way these children can be in biology, U.S. history or any other high school course at our current schools," Woodason said.
The lack of a traditional education, according to Jennifer Phinney, director of school support, is due, simply, to the fact that the youths never needed it.
"Most of these students are from very, very rural places," she said. "They are farmers and laborers, by tradition."
The students, at an age when their American peers are typically preparing for college or the job market, are entering school for the first time — and may remain there until the age of 22, the legal maximum age.
To combat these challenges, Dalton officials have decided to form a Newcomer Academy at Morris Innovative High School for the coming school year — last year, most of the students were in English Language Learners, or ELL, classes at Dalton High School.
Students who prove, through testing, to be non-proficient in English and are at least three years behind academically will be enrolled in the academy.
The goal of the new program is simple, in theory, if not execution.
"We want the students to learn English, understand their new culture and community, and to be able to succeed not only in our school setting, but in our community," Woodason said. "They want, eventually, to stay here. We want to make sure they can be productive citizens."
Three English as Second Language-certified teachers will work with the students in the academy. Newcomer classes will stress English literacy, reading, mathematics, science and the American experience, Woodason said.
Hawkins said the sudden appearance of these students created problems not addressed by state and federal agencies.
While schools can receive approximately $1.50 extra per ELL student, the costs associated with meeting these new challenges are left to any school system that receives new students, he said.
And the Georgia Department of Education has no system in place to distinguish these teenage first-time students from any other learners.
So the new students "become a detriment to schools' graduation rates," Woodason said. "Some school systems don't want to even accept these students because these kids cannot — in most cases — graduate."
Said Phinney: "Schools are being told they must enroll the students, by one agency. But they still have to meet the same educational standards set by the government. Those two things do not match."
Health and Human Services officials said Thursday that the Office of Refugee Resettlement sent 1,154 unaccompanied youths to sponsors — parents or another family member — in Georgia between Jan. 1 and the end of June.
The administrators with Dalton Public Schools said no notification is provided to them by Health and Human Services when school-age youths are sent into the district.
"A heads-up would be nice," Phinney said. "It'd be great if we could get a little advance warning."
It isn't known whether more such youths are coming to Dalton, the school officials said.