ReeShell Parra Fernandez is a bright 9-year-old. She follows conversations. And without knowing English, she sings American pop songs from memory.
A recent immigrant from Venezuela, she’s also never really been to school. An economic crisis and violence engulfed her native country when she should have started classes. And at this point, she still hasn’t learned to read.
ReeShell’s family is among thousands who have fled South and Central America and arrived in Chicago in the past year, many having been bused from the southern border.
This week, she and other kids begin classes in Chicago Public Schools, a change that makes her smile but also presents a daunting challenge for teachers and parents who hope to provide a fulfilling and supportive education.
“That’s what we came here for,” her mother, Mariser Fernandez, says in Spanish. “For them to have a career, to get an education.”
About 5,300 new English-learning students registered at CPS throughout the last school year. Not all those children came from asylum-seeking families — some may have had a more stable immigration or were not recent immigrants at all. But schools felt a surge compared to the typical year, when around 3,000 new English learners enroll.
The district ended the school year with a little more than 77,000 English learners, who make up about a quarter of the city’s public school students. And new arrivals are scattered all across the city.
CPS officials estimate 1,000 newcomer students living in shelters and other temporary locations have registered for school this summer, and they expect around another 1,000 to sign up soon.
More than 13,000 immigrants have arrived in the city since last August, when Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott began busing migrants from the southern border to Chicago and other cities run by Democratic politicians. Many have found housing through the city, state, community groups or on their own.
But over 6,000 immigrants remain in city shelters as of Tuesday, according to the Office of Emergency Management and Communications. Almost 2,000 are minors. Around 1,000 are at police stations still waiting to be placed in shelters, including about 400 kids.
Volunteers are helping students at police stations enroll in school. But advocates hope those families will be directed to more formal support in the city’s shelter system and state rental assistance program.
“How do you ensure they regularly have access to clean uniforms?” asked Juan Antonio Montesinos, a volunteer at the Central District police station. “How do they stay present in school when the sergeant wakes them up at 5 a.m., and it is impossible to go to sleep until late?”
Juan Carlos Rivas, a single dad who arrived in Chicago with his daughter in early June, said he’s been anxiously waiting for classes to start so he can find a job.
“I can’t really go find work until she’s in school,” he said.
Fewer bilingual teachers
CPS for more than a decade has tried coping with shrinking enrollment. But now it faces new challenges and opportunities with thousands of arriving students.
The district has budgeted for fewer bilingual teachers each of the past five years, a Chicago Sun-Times analysis of employee rosters shows. And the number of employed bilingual teachers has dropped from 2,126 in the 2018-2019 school year to 1,801 last school year —although more bilingual teachers are full-time today than a few years ago.
In that time, the district has gone from about 33 English-learner students per bilingual teacher in 2018 to 43 kids per teacher by the end of last school year.
CPS officials say some bilingual-certified teachers are staffed in regular teaching positions and don’t show up in the rolls as bilingual teachers. A spokeswoman said the school system has about 3,000 bilingual-certified teachers.
CPS added some staff at schools that welcomed new migrants last school year. And the district is giving schools $18 million more this upcoming school year for bilingual education services, a Sun-Times analysis shows. Officials say $8 million is directly tied to new migrants.
But getting kids to schools in the first place is a task.
At times, groups of families have shown up at a school because they heard it was good. Others have gone to schools near their temporary shelter, where many times they find language barriers or cultural differences. Some families haven’t found a school at all, instead bogged down searching for adequate shelter, food and other necessities. They’ve arrived with widely varying levels of education.
With a full summer to prepare, a CPS team led by Karime Asaf, the district’s language and cultural education chief, is now more organized. They’re trying to locate families who haven’t enrolled in school and efficiently direct resources to schools with new students. The team has a daily call with the mayor’s office to coordinate efforts and account for newly arrived families.
A CPS data analyst then figures out which school is most likely to have the programs and space to support each kid rather than having students randomly showing up across the district. Officials also set up a pilot resource center at Clemente High School on the Near West Side to facilitate enrollment, health screenings, transportation, school supplies and more.
“I am absolutely confident that once children cross those doors, teachers, principals, lunchroom staff — they will all welcome them with open arms,” Asaf said. “And once a child has a classroom, and friends, and a teacher, and a meal or two or three, and a program after school, and they can come home and show homework to their parents, even while they’re waiting for their life to be more stable … it will become a reality.
“This is very difficult to manage, but we are doing our absolute best.”
Schools make adjustments
Much of the new funding is going to schools near city shelters for immigrants, including more than a half-million to Salazar Elementary. It’s about a mile away from the city’s largest shelter, the Inn of Chicago, where more than 1,500 people are staying on the Near North Side.
Haugan Elementary in Albany Park, long home to immigrants, is getting $210,000. A few families registered there every week starting in November until 100 new students had enrolled by the end of the school year, most from Ecuador. School leaders estimate another 50 families have registered this summer.
“This has really brought tremendous growth and change to our school,” said Haugan Principal Heather Yutzy, who has appreciated parents’ and students’ open arms for their new neighbors.
“All of the families we had last year were doubled up with other families in Albany Park,” she said. “Some had been on their own path; some had come on the buses that came up. But they all had some friend of a friend, family — some connection in Albany Park.”
Math and reading assessments determine where each student stands academically — some kids do them in both Spanish and English to gauge their language comprehension. Yutzy hired five retired bilingual teachers to work part time. Educators are also helping families find food and shelter. Mental health support is widely needed and often provided with the help of community organizations and health centers.
“A big chunk of our population had traumatic separations at the border in Texas,” Yutzy said. “Those kids really had tremendous separation anxiety at the school. A lot of crying, not wanting to leave mama because I might not see her again.”
Most of these migrant children also qualify for resources available to homeless students because they’re living in shelters, parks, police stations or are temporarily doubled up with another family.
Carl Von Linne Elementary in Avondale is a couple blocks from Brands Park, now a temporary shelter for asylum seekers. The school enrolled more than 50 newcomers last school year, most from Venezuela, which ballooned the number of Linne’s homeless students from one to 57.
The number of CPS students classified as homeless reached a five-year high in April — 16,844. But CPS officials said that uptick isn’t all attributable to new arrivals.
Linne’s homeless-services coordinator has taken on the work while staff and fellow parents have stepped up, too, Principal Gabriel Parra said. The school also got funding for three new teachers.
“We’ve done specific donation drives in our school to be able to get basic needs into the building, whether it’s shampoo, deodorant, clothing, whatever it may be to help support the families,” Parra said.
A Venezuelan immigrant to Chicago in 1983 himself — and a Haugan student once he arrived — Parra has formed strong relationships with newcomers.
“Families have given me the details of their trajectory through the Darién Gap [in Central America], moving through Panama to come on foot to the United States, and the stories have been horrible,” Parra said. “But what I’ve noticed outside the trauma that is very real, is that the kids are thirsty for normalcy.”
Students enrolled in CPS last year participated in summer programs. But volunteers, like teacher Sol Camano, started providing makeshift schooling as early as last September to newcomers who hadn’t yet registered for school and were sheltering at hotels near O’Hare International Airport.
“We did art activities and writing activities — first in Spanish to make them feel like they could express themselves in their native language,” said Camano, a bilingual teacher at Prieto Elementary in Belmont Cragin. “And then little by little adding words and books in English.”
Luis Eduardo Reyes Gómez, 11, immigrated from Honduras with his mom. He’s starting this week at Oscar DePriest Elementary in Austin on the West Side. But he hasn’t fully been in school since the pandemic began in 2020.
His mother, Mercedes Gómez Osorto, 46, isn’t worried, though.
“He’s a hardworking boy,” she said.
On Friday, with only a weekend separating him and his first lessons, Luis Eduardo wore a shirt he picked up earlier at a back-to-school bash at DePriest, where he met other immigrant families like Grace Martinez and her son, Lionel Nieves.
“He didn’t even want to leave,” Martinez said. “He was having too much fun.”
Martinez, 26, said she’s glad her kids have company.
“It’s good because they already know each other,” the Venezuelan native said. “This school, where they’ll go for now, is only English speaking, so at least they’ll be able to play together.”
Lauren FitzPatrick contributed to this report.
Michael Loria is a staff reporter at the Chicago Sun-Times via Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster the paper’s coverage of communities on the South Side and West Side.