A young woman named Carolina sipped hot coffee as she walked her son to his first day of the fourth grade at Jordan Elementary School in Rogers Park on Monday.
It was already 70 degrees at 7 a.m., but 9-year-old Abraham didn’t seem to notice the heat during the 15 minute walk.
Wearing a bright blue athletic jacket to match his new sneakers, he spotted a couple of friends among the dozens of migrant families walking the same route and helped his mom figure out the best route to school. He’s already starting to feel at home in his new neighborhood.
It’s been a long journey. From Venezuela to Peru and then to the Mexico border, mom and son join thousands of others who have arrived in Chicago over the last 12 months. And now, after a long summer of uncertainty, Abraham finally made it to his first day of school. WBEZ is withholding their full names for safety reasons.
Carolina said her number one priority is making sure Abraham gets a good education and learns English. She’s not taking anything for granted. Just two weeks ago, they were living in a Chicago police station and Abraham had no school to go to.
Through the jungle to the Mexico border
Carolina, her fiance Jose and Abraham have been in the U.S. for about two months. Originally from Venezuela, mom and son moved to Peru in 2016 after the economy collapsed.
It took 20 days to travel from Peru to the U.S.-Mexico border near Juarez. Jose said they nearly starved to death in the jungle and struggled to find clean water.
Carolina said they entered the country legally and are seeking asylum. They had originally intended to stay in Texas with a host family.
But plans fell through. So the family worked and saved enough money to get to Chicago.
Carolina said they chose the city because of rumors about it being a land of opportunity.
But when they got here, the shelters were packed. The family slept on the floor at the 12th District police station in Pilsen for about 20 days.
Carolina says she’s grateful they were moved to a shelter now three weeks ago. But it’s not ideal.
The three of them share a motel room and bathroom with two other families: a pregnant woman and her husband, and another couple with a 9-year-old son.
Migrants in Chicago Public Schools
An influx of migrants into Chicago has put a spotlight on bilingual education. Chicago Public Schools says about 5,300 new English-learners were added throughout last school year – about 2,000 more than enroll in a typical year.
Many of these students are part of the highly publicized group of migrants who came on buses sent by Republican governors from Texas and Florida. Carolina and Abraham were first bused from Texas to Denver and then from there to Chicago.
CPS estimates about 1,000 newcomers living in shelters and other temporary housing have registered for school this summer. They expect another 1,000 to enroll soon.
CPS’s budget for this school year includes a $15 million increase for bilingual education. Some $8 million will be doled out to schools as they get new arrivals and need more resources through the year.
Some teachers say their schools were unprepared for these students.
Speaking at a school board meeting last month, Rebekah Amay said these students not only need bilingual education, but also mental health support and help for their parents as they navigate a new education system in a new country.
“All across the city, community organizations, council members and organizations have already started the work and it is up to us to sustain it through our schools,” Amay said.
In a statement, CPS said it aims to provide every student with a “high-quality and holistic education” and that it’s “well-equipped” to serve students who have arrived in recent months.
“CPS has established systems in place to welcome any family. Our team works with every student to identify support needs regardless of country of origin,” the statement said.
CPS volunteers step in
To help students adjust, dozens of CPS teachers volunteered this summer to help newcomers at the Free Store, a donation center located near the police station in Bridgeport.
“Getting a chance to do our jobs in this setting before the school year starts – it’s really meaningful,” said Josh Lerner, a bilingual coordinator and lead teacher at Pierce Elementary in Edgewater.
Volunteers help sort through donations and keep the storefront organized. All residents are welcome to pick up free clothes, shoes, toiletries, baby formula, children’s books and more.
Lerner said suitcases and bags are in high-demand because many newcomers live in temporary arrangements and have to carry their belongings with them. They also have trouble finding petite clothing for men and women. Volunteers also coordinate to offer rides, deliver food and help people navigate the enrollment process.
Lerner said he met with bilingual teachers over the summer to plan for the fall. Pierce serves about 200 English language learners and welcomed three dozen newcomer families over the last year.
“Pierce has a good number of bilingual staff … but there were obviously many schools that were using translation apps to try to get through the day,” he said.
Lerner said it’s important to hire more bilingual educators who can work with students across grade levels, and schools need access to Spanish literacy curriculum, especially in the early grades.
Welcome Center in Humboldt Park
The district opened a new resource center this summer at Clemente High School on the West Side to help newcomers enroll and get health screenings, transportation and other services. Families go through an orientation process and pick up free school supplies, food and clothing.
It’s meant to serve families staying nearby, but the city also has been transporting families from shelters around Chicago to the Humboldt Park school.
Clemente Principal Devon Morales said he welcomed 88 newly arrived students during the last school year, and has capacity to welcome hundreds more students.
“This is also a personal project for myself as an Afro Puerto Rican,” he said. “My father, my grandmother came here in 1955 to receive some of the similar services.”
CPS is recruiting bilingual staff from “all over the world,” Morales said, including at least two teachers from Spain who interviewed for teaching positions over the summer. The school had 12 bilingual teachers at the end of last year.
Morales said the school took a group of newly-arrived students to Navy Pier over the summer. He wants them to feel welcome in the city.
“They were just overwhelmed with what can be provided for them when they become a part of the school community,” he said.
Finding a school for Abraham
Carolina and her son were bused from their Rogers Park shelter to the Welcome Center two weeks before school started to enroll.
They arrived around 9 am and stayed until 2 pm.
By day’s end, Abraham finally had a school. He was placed at Jordan School near their temporary housing.
“I’m very excited,” she said in Spanish. “It’s a huge help for us.”
Carolina didn’t know much about the school and wasn’t sure what questions to ask. She wasn’t sure if the school had bilingual staff to help her son.
And she missed a back-to-school orientation last week because she had to work. But she’s trusting the district to place him in a school with the appropriate resources.
Still, she’s not leaving it all up to CPS. Carolina makes her son practice his writing, reading and math skills every day. She wanted him to stay sharp before school started, and is focused on making sure he learns English sooner rather than later.
She also recently got a city ID and work permit. She’s been cleaning houses to make money and one day wants to start her own cleaning business. The family is saving up for a one-bedroom apartment.
They’d like to stay in Rogers Park, but are waiting to be set up in temporary assisted living through the city. A city representative stopped by last week to see Carolina to discuss housing.
“They say it’s the best country in the world. Let’s see if what people say is true,” she said. “I think that if you’re working, you can achieve a lot of things. But everything [requires] effort.”
The end of a long first day
At 3 p.m, Carolina picked up Abraham from his first day of fourth grade at Jordan School.
He was exhausted. And he hadn’t learned his teacher’s name just yet.
But he said had a good day.
As he left, the shy boy began to open up. He waved to his classmates, bidding them “ciao ciao, bye bye” as they headed home.
Abraham said he’s looking forward to learning math and playing soccer with his new friends.
He’s also laser focused on getting a new bike so he can explore the neighborhood.
And maybe even riding it to school on his own.