When Migrant Students Come To Illinois, Schools Adjust And Embrace | WBEZ
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When Migrant Students Come To Illinois, Schools Adjust And Embrace

Students at Fenton High School in northwest suburban Bensenville rise for the Pledge of Allegiance on a recent morning. A spiky-haired boy named Elder puts his hand over his heart, faces the flag and quietly recites the pledge. It’s still new to him, but he takes any chance he gets to practice his English.

And he’s not the only one. Elder is one of 48 students from Guatemala enrolled at Fenton this year, part of an uptick of new immigrant Latin American students at his school and others nearby.

“In Guatemala, the life is difficult,” Elder said, using his new English skills. “The money is not enough. I need to help my family.” WBEZ is only using Elder’s first name because he has a case pending in immigration court, and he doesn’t want to jeopardize it.

Illinois State Board of Education data shows the number of new students born outside of the U.S. has been increasing, especially those from Mexico. Cook County is home to the most Mexican students — nearly 5,000 new kids this year. That's up from 4,300 in 2016. And of counties in the metro area, Will County has had the highest rate increase. From 2016 to now, the number of students from Mexico has grown by more than 25% to 625 students.

The numbers also are growing from other Latin American countries.

In DuPage County, where Fenton is located, there were 323 new students born in Guatemala in the 2016-17 school year. This year that’s up to 578. And Cook and Lake counties top the metro area when it comes to receiving Honduran immigrants. In Lake County in the 2016-17 school year, for example, there were 328 new students born in Honduras. This year, it’s 505. ISBE does not keep record of student immigration status per federal and state law.

New Latin American Students in Cook County

This chart shows the number of new students identified by their country of birth. Source: Illinois State Board of Education

New Latin American Students in DuPage County

This chart shows the number of new students identified by their country of birth. Source: Illinois State Board of Education

New Latin American Students in Lake County

This chart shows the number of new students identified by their country of birth. Source: Illinois State Board of Education

This comes as there’s been a 370% increase in the number of families detained after crossing the border in 2019 compared to the same time last year, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. The agency said most apprehensions at the Southwest border are families and unaccompanied children from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. Many are fleeing violence and poverty in those countries.

As these children and their families try to make a life in the U.S., even a temporary one, schools are helping to acculturate them. Immigration attorney Lauren Hoover said nonprofit groups struggle to provide services to immigrants because they’re difficult to track. Schools, then, play an important role in providing support, she said.

“They’re very much being welcomed, and there are services being offered — not just to the children at school, but to their families,” Hoover said. “There’s been a good community outreach in most cases as to accepting people and welcoming them into the community.”

But for two northwestern suburban high schools, it’s been a big adjustment.

Elder’s story

When Elder isn’t at school, the 17-year-old works at a nearby factory and sends money back home. He left his parents and siblings and traveled to the U.S.-Mexico border with his uncles last year, he said. They did some walking, but mostly rode buses to get up north. 

When they got to the border, they surrendered. Like many crossing the border, they did not have immigration papers. They were detained for a time before being released while their case is processed in immigration court. 

“Throughout the entire journey, I saw different things that I've never seen before in my life,” Elder said in Spanish through an interpreter. “Different types of people, nice people and not nice people. But it's the experience of my life.”

Elder lives with his uncles and his cousin Raul, who is also a Fenton student. Raul, 16, arrived a few months after Elder. 

A lot of attention is paid to immigrants being detained at the border. But many, like Elder, have been released while their cases move through immigration court. Hoover said the release process seems to be haphazard.

“There’s no rhyme or reason,” Hoover said. “There’s just these policies that seem to get implemented every few weeks, and it kind of changes the system.” 

So many Guatemalans have ended up in Bensenville in recent years that there’s even an apartment complex that is mostly rented out by them. They’ve relocated here because it’s an industrial area with jobs. It’s also by word-of-mouth — people have a network of friends and family here. Most come from one city, Huehuetenango, in western Guatemala.

Two Guatemalan students walk to class at Fenton High School in Bensenville.
Manuel Martinez/WBEZ
Two Guatemalan students walk to class at Fenton High School in Bensenville.

Filling in the gaps

The student body at Fenton has been more than 50% Hispanic for at least the past five years and is now more than 60% with the new immigrants. 

Fenton’s English as a second language coordinator, Michelle Rodriguez used to have just one bilingual class with 10 to 15 students. “Now we’re looking into two, possibly three sections because there is such an influx,” she said.

And most immigrants used to come from Mexico, Rodriguez added, but that’s shifting with the rising number of students from Guatemala. 

Rodriguez said many are going through some kind of immigration process, and they can still be in shock by the time they enroll. The school sets them up with necessities like food, supplies, warm clothes and even a connection to healthcare.

She said the challenge comes with some students who arrive with only a sixth-grade education. That’s the level free schooling ends in Guatemala. 

She says they’re focused on “what can we do to lower this gap and make sure they have a high-quality education.” 

Though Elder is 17, he’s started this year as a freshman because he’s behind academically.

“For [immigration officials], academics are very important, but for me it's even more important because I want to study,” he said through an interpreter. “I don't do it out of obligation or because I have to do it. I do it because I like academics.”

Teacher Michelle Rodriguez helps a Guatemalan student in class at Fenton High School in suburban Bensenville.
Manuel Martinez/WBEZ
Teacher Michelle Rodriguez helps a Guatemalan student in class at Fenton High School in suburban Bensenville.

Building the plane while flying it

A similar increase is happening at York High School in neighboring Elmhurst, where 70 Guatemalan students are enrolled. 

Unlike Fenton, York is a mostly white student body. The school wasn’t ready for the first wave of Guatemalan students that arrived a few years ago, said Lorenzo Rubio, the school’s World Language department chair.

“What do you do then when the most basic level of math that you offer at your school is something called ‘algebra A’ that requires a certain level of math experience, and our kids are coming and having trouble with basic math functions,” Rubio said.

The school had to come up with solutions on the fly, like creating a basic math curriculum that Rubio translated into Spanish.

He said the school has improved since then, with more bilingual hires and targeted programming. Even getting school documents for immigration court has become routine. 

“We’ll go to the registrar, she’s got it down now,” Rubio said. “They just print out their grades. They show that hopefully they’re in good standing.” 

Rubio said Guatemalan kids entering at the elementary and middle school levels have less of a challenge because there isn’t a content gap. He said Guatemalan students who enter high school from one of the feeder middle schools are often academically successful. 

“I’ve seen it create some tensions within families where it’s like big brother and little brother show up, and one of them is better at school,” he said.

Rubio said that difficulty is reflected in York’s dropout rate. It’s only 1%, but the rate of Guatemalan students leaving early is higher than for the rest of the school.

“It is very difficult,” he said. “Sometimes the end result maybe isn’t worth it for some of our [Guatemalan] students, especially if they consider college not worth it for them or not even a possibility.”

Rubio said he wants to diversify the school’s message so that students see graduating as a necessity even if they don’t plan to go to college.

York and Fenton administrators said they now anticipate new arrivals and plan for it. But one thing neither school has had to deal with yet is deportation. There’s currently a backlog in immigration cases. It could take years for someone to receive a judgment.

Rubio said until then, the school is trying to strike the right balance. It wants to be supportive of immigrant students, but it doesn’t want them to feel marginalized by asking about their status.

“To ignore that question or banish it is to say that question doesn't matter here,” he said. “You belong to York. You’re a York Duke, and you’re just going to be like everybody else.”

Susie An covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter @WBEZeducation and @soosieon.

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