Separate but thriving: how one Delaware district teaches its unaccompanied minors [video]


Last summer’s migration of Central American children to the U.S. created an issue in the Indian River School District, but a plan was devised.


Yolanda Cortez, 18, moved from Guatemala to Southern Delaware seven months ago to live with a sister. She left behind an ailing mother, an aging father, and a family home in need of repairs.

She brought with her the dubious merits of an education interrupted.

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Before Yolanda arrived in Georgetown, Delaware–the 6,500-person seat of rural Sussex County–she had been home-schooled for about five years and spent another five in a Guatemalan technical school. Her native tongue is Mam, a Mayan language. Her Spanish is conversational, but still developing. Her English is almost nonexistent.

“I knew numbers one to ten when I came,” Yolanda says through a translator. “A couple random words.”

Educating one student like Yolanda is difficult. But in the Indian River School District, there are dozens that match her profile. A majority arrived over the past year, part of the national surge in unaccompanied minors from Central America that made headlines last summer. Like Yolanda, many were teenagers with limited formal education.

To accommodate these students, Indian River is piloting a new program that focuses on their most basic needs. Officials believe it is a burgeoning success story, but it comes with an asterisk. The students in Indian River’s newcomer program learn in total isolation from their American peers, in a separate building miles from the main high school campus. The arrangement is a product of circumstance, not design, but its seeming effectiveness raises critical questions about what works when educating the most vulnerable immigrant students.

“We don’t have the right stuff”

The story of Indian River’s APELL program–short for Advancing Preliterate English Language Learners–begins last winter. LouAnn Hudson, Indian River’s Director of Curriculum and Instruction, remembers getting a series of phone calls from the principal of the district’s largest high school. 

“The principal kept calling and saying, I don’t know what to do,” Hudson recalls. “Where are they coming from and what should we do about this?”

They, in this case, were immigrants, mostly from Guatemala. In all, Hudson says, about 90 teenage migrants have enrolled in Indian River schools over the past year.

“He kept telling us, we’ve got to do something different,” Hudson says. “We can’t handle their needs. We don’t have the right stuff here.”

Indian River, it should said, is no stranger to immigrants. Of the district’s 9,800 students, 29 percent are Hispanic and 12 percent are English Language Learners. Georgetown, Delaware, where Yolanda moved, is home to one of the highest concentrations of Guatemalans in the U.S.

But these adolescent newcomers were different. They routinely tested at elementary-school levels, well behind even other English Language Learners.

“These students came to us not even knowing what it was like to be in school. They did not understand that they could not just get up and walk out of the classroom without permission,” Hudson says. “All that had to be explicitly taught.”

High hurdles

Guatemala has a notoriously poor education system. Among countries in the Western Hemisphere, only Honduras and Haiti rank lower than Guatemala on the United Nations’ Education Index, a metric that combines mean years of schooling and expected years of schooling in a given country. The country’s adult literacy rate is 76 percent, according to UNESCO. No other Central American country’s is worse.

 Making matters more difficult, many of Indian River’s newcomers spoke Spanish as a second language and struggled to write coherently in it. The school district was puzzled.

 “We really didn’t have a lot of information,” says Hudson “All we knew is that we had a lot of newcomers coming all at once.”

Over the summer, it became clear that many were unaccompanied youth who had been released from federal detention to live with relatives and sponsors in Southern Delaware. Soon the story of Central American teens fleeing violence and poverty became national news.

In about three weeks, Indian River, with assistance from the state, cobbled together a program that could accommodate these newcomers. It would need to teach them English, of course, but it would also need to teach the soft skills of how one goes to school. Just as important, it would need to be a safe place that could lure teenagers to the classroom and away from the nearby chicken processing plants where many immigrants work. And finally it would need to instill a sort of doggedness in its students, all of whom face long educational odds

“It’s a program that’s designed as much around building self-esteem and courage and grit and persistence as the academic side of language acquisition,” says Michael Watson, Chief Academic Officer for the Delaware Department of Education.

A program emerges

What emerged was APELL, a voluntary remedial program. Students who sign up are supposed to spend between 12 and 18 months in APELL classes before transitioning to standard English Language Learner classes.

District and state officials wanted to house the program at Sussex Central High School, but they couldn’t find room. Indian River’s student population has grown by 26 percent over the last decade.

Instead, they placed APELL students at the GW Carver Center, an overflow building miles away. So far, about 60 students have enrolled, and about two-to-three new ones join every week according to Hudson.

“It could be a school within a school, easily, if the space was there,” says Hudson. “And that would have been where we started, even though we think we have seen benefits now after the fact.”

“Their place”

Those benefits are apparent on a Friday morning in mid-February as teacher Michael Grabowski gives his class an impromptu civics lesson.

“Why no school on Monday,” Grabowski asks aloud.

“Dia del presidente,” exclaims one student.

A chorus follows: “President’s Day! President’s Day!”

“And who’s our President,” Grabowski adds.

“Obama,” say the students excitedly.

Next door in Lori Ott’s English class, the teenagers learn about adjectives by using their Spanish dictionaries to translate words associated with Valentine’s Day. Every time a student walks to the smart-board to write a translation, others spontaneously repeat the word aloud in a sort of popcorn-patterned recitation. 

The tasks are stunningly simple, but equally stunning is the verve with which students participate. Same goes for the lunch room, which buzzes with chatter about queer American foods like strawberry milk.

“I think they’ve really felt comfortable in this building,” says Ott. “They see this as their place.”

Yolanda agrees. When asked what she likes about America, she pauses.

Aqui? Here? 

Then Yolanda smiles, her dimples deepen, and she responds softly.

“Right now, I like the school.”

This sort of response is an early indicator of APELL’s effectiveness, says Michael Watson.

“In other programs that have been designed around the country, sometimes within a week or two weeks these kids are already dropping out of the program,” he says. “Here we’re seeing 58 kids who have walked in. They’re persisting better, they’re improving.”

“A year and a half is a long time”

There is, however, a counter-intuitive component to APELL’s success. For decades, researchers and bureaucrats have preached integration when it comes to English Language Learners. School districts, it’s said, must expose immigrants to their American-born peers so that they may assimilate and acquire language.

“The opportunity to be with children from the mainstream not only provides them with peers who are models of English, or English as it’s actually spoken, but it also provides the motivation to want to speak the language because they have a need to communicate and create friendships,” says Patricia Gandara, a research professor at UCLA’s Graduate School of Education.

Although sympathetic to districts with large newcomer populations, she balks at the prospect of immigrant students being segregated for a year or more in their own building.

“A year a half is a long time,” says Gandara. “You’re talking about two grade levels, really, that kids would be experiencing this kind of isolation. That, I think, becomes worrisome.”

Earlier this year, the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice released guidelines on how to educate English Language Learners, the first such document in almost a quarter century. In it, the government reaffirmed its commitment to integration. The guidelines read, in part:

 “Although there may be program-related educational justifications for providing a degree of separate academic instruction to EL students, the Departments would rarely find a program-related justification for EL and non-EL students separately in subjects like physical education, art, and music or for separating students during activity periods outside of classroom instruction.”

 Yet such arrangements persist. In 2011, the Center for Applied Linguistics surveyed 63 newcomer programs across the country. Sixty percent–or 38 of the 63–existed within traditional school. Ten belonged to a network of separate schools for newcomers. The final 15 were individual programs housed off-site. And of those 15, nine were full-day programs like APELL.

Questions unanswered

The study was largely descriptive, leaving unanswered questions about how best to educate newcomers with little formal education. And those questions are profound.

To what extent should districts segregate immigrant students? Where is the line between making vulnerable students feel safe and stunting their growth? What are the lingering social effects, if any, of isolating newcomers in their own learning communities?

Lori Ott has wrestled with those questions for her two decades as an ELL instructor in the Indian River School District. A longtime proponent of nudging English learners toward the mainstream, she has begun to reconsider as she watches her APELL students flourish.

“This year has kind of opened my eyes being in this building in a separate facility,” says Ott.

She has been particularly impressed with her students’ confidence. “They’re taking risks and making mistakes and learning from their mistakes,” she says.

That same sentiment may apply to the adults, who have monitored their early success with cautious optimism and a sense that tweaks are forthcoming. Besides, Ott and others know that the story of APELL won’t be complete until students start returning to the traditional high school next fall.

For a student like Yolanda, it will be a daunting journey. But no more so than the one that brought her here.

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