Free public K-12 education is the only locally-funded service mandated by federal law for which the majority of Central American newcomers are eligible. Yet, school districts often experience a high cost of facilitating school enrollment and providing basic education and related services. Currently, there is a lack of research on how contextual variables, such as familiarity with the challenges posed by large immigrant student populations have led to divergent school responses across U.S. communities. The current study uses primary data collected from 36 semi-structured interviews with teachers, school administrators, school board representatives, and community-based service providers engaged in school-based programming from the Houston and Washington, DC, and the Carolinas to explore the following research questions: (a) what is the impact of Central American migration on local schools? (b) how have school districts provided services to these youth (strengths and challenges)? and (c) how are Central American youth doing with respect to the integration into local schools and communities?
Key-informant interviews (n = 36) were conducted using a semi-structured interview guide that probed participants about the service landscape, strengths and challenges of providing services, service gaps, newcomer outcomes, innovative practices, and the impact of immigration enforcement on the school district’s ability to service youth. Participants were recruited from local schools (e.g., principals, teachers), administrative personnel (e.g., superintendents), non-profit organizations (e.g., Communities in Schools) and advocacy groups (e.g., policy think tanks) focused on providing educational services in primary and secondary public schools. Qualitative data were analyzed using thematic analysis described by Braun and Clarke (2006). In Dedoose software, the research team first completed line-by-line coding of the interview transcripts. We then collated the coded data extracts and considered how the codes fit together to create themes. We refined the themes by assessing internal and external heterogeneity.
Uniformly, school districts identified significant educational challenges to serving Central American minors. A significant barrier was state policies that require standardized testing, district accountability, and graduation requirements that increased the burden of administrators and teachers. District administrators across all three research sites indicated that this impacted recruitment and retention of specialized teachers, increased barriers to registering and engaging youth, and hurt graduation rates by creating insurmountable barriers. Educational challenges specific to youth also made these requirements more complex. For example, there was considerable discussion about how youth who arrived to the U.S. without previous schooling or interrupted schooling struggle to perform at grade level. Youth and families also faced significant barriers to educational success. These included mental health (significant trauma exposure) and basic needs (uniforms, food, transportation, and financial strains), and adapting to new school rules and social contexts.
Despite these challenges, the school administrators and teachers spoke positively about serving this population. There was recognition of the challenging policy environment and the disparate environmental conditions that drove youth to migrate to the U.S. Participants discussed promising practices in each location that address many of the aforementioned barriers. A goal of the presentation will be to highlight some of these strategies.