At the age of 16, Nahum Velasquez left his family and emigrated from El Salvador to Montgomery County. He is now an 18-year-old 10th grader attending Seneca Valley High School. On Monday, March 10, Velasquez testified before the Montgomery County Board of Education as the Board addressed the issue of how MCPS is dealing with an increasing number of unaccompanied minors entering the school system.
Velasquez said he was excited after enrolling at Seneca Valley High School shortly after arriving in Montgomery County. “Very quickly, however, I was made to feel different and not valued. My first day in my ESOL class, my teacher sighed and said: ‘not another one.’ In a very annoyed tone, she told me that she did not understand why so many people were coming from my country, and asked me what was going on there.”
Hesaid that it was the first of many similar comments from teachers and students. Velasquez went on tell the Board about a physical education teacher who told him that the reason he was a good jumper was because he learned to jump “while crossing the border.”
“It is in this environment that Latino students try to survive,” said Velasquez. “And although we may seek support, we often times are not given the attention we need.” He told the Board about guidance counselors turning him away, stating they did not have time for his questions because they were overwhelmed with the number of students assigned to them.
He said tutoring services at the school never seem to have enough tutors, and when there were tutors available they ignore ESOL students. He also said he was bullied and mocked as he struggled to learn English.
“I began to feel very sad and uncomfortable at school, like I didn’t belong there. It is already a huge challenge to move to a place with a completely different language and culture. To be made fun constantly for trying my hardest to succeed in this school system has made this experience even more challenging. I have come to the conclusion that the Latinos, particularly recently arrived Latinos, are not considered as important as other students—pretty much seen as students that will not be successful, and are treated as such. It often feels as though we are an inconvenience to the school system—as if we are not students like all the others, who come here to get an education with hopes of attending college, or developing the necessary skills to carry out a dignified career,” said Velasquez.
During Monday’s meeting the Board of Education addressed the issues and concerns that MCPS has in dealing with a large number of unaccompanied minors enrolling in the school system.
Through Jan. 31, MCPS has enrolled 998 students from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras and more than 3,000 international students from 155 countries during the 2014-2015 school year, according to Chris Richardson, Associate Superintendent, Special Education and Student Services. The Central American countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras represent the countries of origin for approximately 33 percent of all international students enrolled, and the majority of the unaccompanied minors entering MCPS this school year.
The official number of unaccompanied minors enrolling in MCPS from July 1, 2014 to Jan. 31, 2015 is 144, however, Richardson told the Board that the number can be deceiving. International students — including those who come to the area unaccompanied by an adult —have been enrolling in MCPS for many years. Recently, the number of students who come to MCPS via a federal Office of Refugee Resettlement center has increased, this does not fully account for the number of students who traveled to the United States unaccompanied by a family member.
It is anticipated that there will be an additional increase in the number of international students and unaccompanied youth enrolling in MCPS by spring 2015, as is consistent with data from previous years.
MCPS is represented on the Montgomery County Children Fleeing Violence Committee and continues to collaborate with Montgomery County and nonprofit partners to ensure that students and families receive necessary supports. The group includes members from many Montgomery County Government and nonprofit community agencies, as well as staff members from Montgomery College, MCPS, and local elected representatives including a representative of the Montgomery County Board of Education. The committee was established to formulate a rapid, coordinated, and comprehensive response to address this unfolding situation.
“We know that too many of our [international] students find the school experience to be overwhelming,” said Richardson. “We know they come with academic challenges sometimes linked to a limited educational background, they have families that are in need of their financial help just to survive in this high cost-of-living area, of they experience unbelievable challenges in reuniting with their families, or in dealing with some powerfully traumatic experiences that they have had either before or on their way to Montgomery County. We know we need to find ways to better understand and support students who need a different path through MCPS.”
The Board also heard testimony from Diego Uriburu, Executive Director of Identity, a Gaithersburg-based organization which works to reverse the negative trends affecting Latino young people, such as teenage pregnancy, school truancy, low academic achievement, and gang involvement.
“Unaccompanied minors who are in the system are undergoing social, emotional, and poverty related barriers that are very difficult to overcome,” said Uriburu. “These young people often lack support of parents and lack support of a community. They are extremely isolated.”
“Unfortunately, MCPS and the community are not meeting their needs. This is not an issue that can be addressed by simply adding more people or implementing a short-term program. System change is really needed to attend to the needs of these wonderful young people,” Uriburu told the Board of Education.
However, Uriburu, who works closely with many unaccompanied minors through Identity, believes that MCPS and Montgomery County can do more. He asked the Board to place a focus on working with these students to address issues of career and technical education in an effort to stem the flow of unaccompanied students leaving school and working jobs in the food service and landscaping industries. He said real change would require more than just MCPS, but the community as a whole to work toward better supporting these students.
“Identity’s mission is to provide opportunities for Latino youth to believe in themselves and realize their full potential,” said the organization’s Web site. “We aim to facilitate the successful transition of Latino youth into adulthood by providing skills, guidance, positive role models, and a strong sense of community.”
Velasquez said that he finally found some support through the Identity outreach program. “I was lucky that I found Identity and its programs,” said Velasquez. “They really helped support me in ways I did not feel had been done by the school staff. Were it not for the support of Identity staff through the soccer program, I am not sure how I would have found a support system and a positive outlet.”
Velasquez told the Board that through working with Identity, it has made his educational experience better. “I look forward to going to school now, because I have access to this network of peers who are similar to me,” he said.
“It is unconscionable that we have any staff saying to students, ‘Not another one,” said Board of Education member Dr. Judith Docca of Velasquez’s story. “Really, that is unbelievable. We haven’t moved as far as we really need to, we need to keep going with this.”
Seneca Valley High School Principal Marc Cohen said that he was troubled by Velasquez’s testimony. “I was not aware that Nahum was going to testify. I am very troubled by what he has said and plan on speaking with him to gather information. I will then investigate all of his concerns. None of my staff were aware of these concerns.”
“At Seneca Valley, we are very proud of our diversity and we consider ourselves to be a welcoming environment for all students. If students are not being made to feel that way, then I have a responsibility to respond,” said Cohen.
At Monday’s meeting, Board of Education President Patricia O’Neill said, “As a Board of Education we not only have a legal responsibility for all of our children, we also have a moral responsibility for all of our children. While we were setting the agenda, we felt it was very important to bring this topic forward and have a discussion at the Board table. It is truly humbling when I hear stories of what students had to overcome to be in our doors, get into our school system. I don’t know that if I was 15 years-old that I would have had the courage and fortitude to persevere. We want to help make every child successful. MCPS can’t do it all. MCPS will have to work with our other governmental agencies. This will be a continuing discussion.”