CINCINNATI (AP) — Yeser Escalante was 13 when he and his two younger sisters fled Guatemala amid a surge of other unaccompanied minors fleeing to the United States from poverty and violence in Central America.
Three years after making that trek, including being stranded in the Arizona desert when their border-crossing guide abandoned them, Yeser and his sisters live with their mother in Butler County north of Cincinnati in southwest Ohio.
Federal data shows Ohio has taken in only slightly over 1 percent of the nearly 104,000 unaccompanied minors like Yeser, who federal authorities have placed around the country since the fall of 2013. They are expected to go to school while waiting to see if they will be allowed to stay in the United States.
Yeser, 16, is a freshman at Lakota West High School. He can now speak English and says he is grateful for the schooling.
“I like school and learning,” he said. “I don’t want to go back to Guatemala.”
Yeser says he has not encountered any major hurdles in school.
“I was worried at first because I didn’t know what to expect, but everyone helped me,” he said.
But educators and migrant advocates say a rapid influx of students who don’t speak English can create challenges for both students and schools.
The largest concentrations of unaccompanied minors in Ohio are in urban Hamilton and Franklin counties, which received 460 and 260 respectively, and rural Tuscarawas County, which received 187. The government doesn’t release data on counties with less than 50, and schools can’t track unaccompanied students.
Christin McCormick, who teaches English as a second language (ESL) in the nearly 6,000-student Princeton City Schools district in Hamilton County, says they now have about 1,300 ESL students, though she can’t pinpoint unaccompanied ones.
“We welcome all of them and are working hard to meet their needs, but this ‘increasing influx has been difficult to maneuver,'” McCormick said. In addition to not speaking English, many of the teens have little prior schooling, putting them behind others their age.
She said dropping out is also a problem, especially if the students’ sponsors are older brothers of sisters in their 20s and the students have to work to pay for rent, clothes and food.
“It just becomes too much,” said McCormick.
Princeton and Cincinnati Public Schools in Hamilton County and the New Philadelphia School District in Tuscarawas County offer newcomer classes especially to help with English, but they try to get the students in regular classes as soon as possible.
“We don’t want them to feel segregated or that there’s something wrong with them,” said Amy Wentworth, chief academic officer for the roughly 3,000-student New Philadelphia district.
She says the “exploding” population of English language learners has grown to about 200, with officials trying to find ways to provide even more support to students and teachers.
Nonprofit agencies such as Catholic Charities Southwestern Ohio in Hamilton County and La Amistad in Tuscarawas County also help students and schools through support services including tutoring and mentoring.
Jeff Stewart, director of the Canton-based Immigrant Worker Project, acknowledges some school districts are growing more aware of the needs of unaccompanied minors, but others still don’t have the right kinds of programs in place to help them, he said.
“Some schools just don’t know how to deal with a new and diverse population,” he said.
Ohio retired teacher Amy Harris, a personal advocate for migrant children, put it more bluntly.
“Some schools just want these students to go away,”