An existing program for migrant students can’t help schools with the current influx of new students. Here’s why.

Third grade students work at their desks in a classroom. A young girl has a bright reflection that brightens her face.
Some of Colorado’s most diverse school districts are used to waves of immigration bringing in new students in the middle of the year, but this year's influx is much larger, and funding is a challenge. (RJ Sangosti / The Denver Post)

Some of Colorado’s most diverse school districts, including Aurora and Greeley, are used to waves of immigration bringing in new students in the middle of the year.

Recently, families from Burma have moved into Greeley, and Aurora officials recall hundreds of new students from Afghanistan after U.S. troops pulled out.

But this year, the midyear wave is even bigger, with most students arriving from Venezuela and other South American countries. And it is overwhelming some district systems.

“We’re running at 300% our normal typical average for the school year,” said Brett Johnson, chief financial officer for Aurora Public Schools, referring to the number of midyear enrollments, which are up from the typical 500 to 800 in a year.

Schools need everything from new desks and more classroom space, to more teachers, bilingual staff, and specialized teachers who can administer screening tests to determine students’ levels of English proficiency and help them learn English.

But many of the new students from South America arrived after the Oct. 1 cutoff that determines how much per-student state funding each district will get. And although government officials refer to this new group of immigrants as “migrants,” the students do not qualify for money from the federal Migrant Education Program.

What does the Migrant Education Program do?

The Migrant Education Program began in 1966 and was designed to support the children of farmworker families. To qualify for the program, students must have parents who work in agriculture, or work in the field themselves, usually in temporary or seasonal positions, and must have moved between school districts within the last three years.

Some of the children might belong to families who travel around the country following the seasonal availability of farm work. They aren’t necessarily new to the country, and many already are fluent in English. Immigration status doesn’t matter, just as it doesn’t for the students who arrived this semester. By law, all children can access free public education.

In Colorado, there were about 4,500 agricultural migrant children aged 1 through 21 this year — fewer than the thousands of new students from South America. The $7.5 million federal allocation for the state helps younger children succeed in school and focuses on keeping teens and young adults up to age 22 in school instead of dropping out to work full time.

Advocates from the program travel to farms or worksites to enroll children in the program and convince older students up to age 22 to stay in school. The program works with families, visiting their homes, supporting their mental health, and figuring out what other barriers might exist for the students to learn. The funding also pays for school supplies, tutoring, and summer programming.

“A lot of our families have needs that are pretty basic, if we just try to push education on them they’re not ready a lot of times,” said Tomás Mejia, Colorado’s director for the Migrant Education Program. “If we help them be well enough, help the parents and adults be well enough to help the kids, that can really help a lot more.”

The new South American students also need the same types of support. For both groups of students, educators say there’s a need to build trust and provide help that goes beyond the classroom.

The Greeley school district usually enrolls the largest number of agricultural migrant students in the state, and Greeley also is seeing a wave of non-agricultural migrant students. One school recently enrolled 19 new students in one day. An elementary school is now so full that teachers are starting to operate out of mobile carts, moving from room to room, instead of having a classroom.

School districts are addressing student needs

The Greeley district’s existing welcome center, which has always helped the community’s immigrant population, is playing a big role in helping the district welcome and make families feel like they belong, said Brian Lemos, director of instruction and English language development.

But the district is also relying on community partners to help families learn to use technology, learn English, and to offer help with housing or employment.

“There’s definitely unique needs,” Lemos said. “They’re new to the country. All of them have needs as far as language acquisition.”

“A lot of these students are coming to us with severe trauma,” said Theresa Myers, a spokesperson for the Greeley district. “Some of the families from Venezuela, they’ve been trying to travel for months. Our impact on our mental health services is real.”

Right now, the district has a mental health counselor at every school. But 35 counselor and social worker positions in the district were funded by ESSER dollars that won’t be available after September. Now the district is trying to figure out how to keep the much-needed positions.

Although Colorado gives school districts extra money to assist students who are learning English, most school districts say they have to use money from their general fund to cover the services they provide because that specific money isn’t enough.

And since so many of these students arrived after October 1, the districts didn’t get the money for them this year. (If students are still enrolled next fall, the districts will get money then.) In the meantime, school districts are having to hire new staff including paraprofessionals to help teachers with larger-than-normal class sizes. In Aurora, “We have several instances in which elementary schools came back from Christmas break with almost 100 more kids than before,” Johnson said.

Legislators in Colorado are drafting a $24 million proposal to give districts some funding for these midyear enrollees. It won’t be the total funding that districts usually get per student, but it might help.

State lawmakers haven’t filed the proposal, but there are promising signs it’ll pass once they do. Colorado Gov. Jared Polis has said he supports sending extra funding to districts enrolling new students, and the proposal is coming from lawmakers on the powerful Joint Budget Committee, which plays a major role in how the state spends its money.

Johnson said that Aurora isn’t waiting to see that money transferred before hiring needed positions or addressing needs. He hopes the state will reimburse some of the expenses if the money does come.

While leaders say they aren’t cutting budgets or making adjustments, they are starting to think ahead. Maybe that will mean having roaming teams that can go to the schools most impacted on a short term basis to deal with the work of helping students new to the country.

“The hard part is no one knows how long this phenomenon will last,” Johnson said. “We are trying to start putting in some thought in the long-term, if there’s a better system.”

For now, schools are helping new students from South America adapt.

“When a new student enrolls who is new to the country it’s also a matter of the daily school routines — it’s also teaching them the routines of a typical school day,” Johnson said.

That can take up a lot of time for school staff. But not all schools are receiving high numbers of new students. Schools near shelters, apartments or housing where agencies have helped migrants get settled are enrolling more students.

Educators say they aren’t currently thinking about transferring students to different schools to avoid overcrowded classrooms, but Greeley leaders say they have changed enrollment boundaries when schools were getting too full in previous situations. They might consider it if the enrollment boom continues.

School educators say, still, they want kids in school, they understand that children must learn and the faster they can connect them to educators, the better.

Yesenia Robles is a reporter for Chalkbeat Colorado covering K-12 school districts and multilingual education. Contact Yesenia at yrobles@chalkbeat.org.

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