Nearly 1,500 miles separate Honduras and Texas—a little more than three hours by plane, and 40 hours by car. For 14-year-old Manolo (his name has been changed to protect his identity), the journey took three weeks—by foot, bus, and train—and was made possible after his family paid a coyote, someone who illegally helps migrants make the treacherous journey north.

Manolo was just one of many Central American kids who made the trek north in 2011. U.S. Border Patrol data indicates that more than 16,000 unaccompanied minors from there, Mexico, and other countries were detained at the U.S.-Mexico border that year. The dramatic number of children trying to cross the Southwestern border escalates yearly. In 2013, more than 38,000 children were apprehended.

By September 2014, more than 68,000 unaccompanied minors had been detained, and the U.S. faced a humanitarian crisis. Three quarters of the children were from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. Many of them were escaping high poverty and unspeakable violence: rape, murder, torture, extortion, and forced gang recruitment. For others, like Manolo, the trek was made out of a desire to reunite with family after a decade of separation.

The Journey

For 13 years Manolo had no memory of his father. Pushed by violence and poverty toward the U.S., he left Honduras when his son was a year old. Still, Manolo was happy. He lived with his mother, who remarried, and two younger siblings. He went to school, church, and visited with friends.

By the time Manolo finished ninth grade, the urge to meet his father was overwhelming. During the winter of 2011 he took off toward the U.S. He carried his father’s promise of a good education and a better life.

But the road to his father was long and cruel. The teenager crossed five states in Honduras, Guatemala, and Mexico. Along the way, he endured the bitter cold of winter and starvation. With no safe house along the way, Manolo slept in the forest.

It was hard, he says, and dangerous. Snakes and wild pigs threatened his passage. But he continued. “I wanted to meet my dad and I was thinking about a better life,” says the thoughtful teenager who pauses between phrases. He also wanted to help his mother back home and make her life easier. “That’s what gave me the strength to get here,” he says today.

The Other Side

Confused and afraid, Manolo finally reached Texas.

He wondered if he had even made it stateside because everyone he encountered spoke Spanish. He feared capture and deportation back to Honduras—a nation reported to be the world’s most deadly.

I wanted to meet my dad and I was thinking about a better life. That’s what gave me the strength to get here.

Eventually, Manolo settled with his father in the Washington, D.C., area, which, according to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, took in roughly 5,000 unaccompanied minors between January and August of last year. In total, nearly 7,000 children were transferred to this area during that period. The number could be higher, since some—like Manolo—weren’t detained by border patrol agents, so they aren’t represented in government figures.

After his father produced his birth certificate and his grades from Honduras, Manolo was enrolled in high school. Six months later, trying to fit in with peers, Manolo pierced his ear. “My dad got mad and kicked me out,” he says. Manolo slept on a sofa at the home of a friend. Young, unable to speak English and jobless, he struggled. Today, the 18-year-old eleventh grader lives alone, and says teachers were his saving grace.


Educators Speak Up

A handful of educators, including Manolo’s English language learner (ELL) teacher, agreed to be interviewed for this story under the condition of anonymity (all names have been changed). They’re worried about possible repercussions for speaking up. From high school to middle school, these educators echo the same sentiment: Unaccompanied minors are assets. While politicians, government agencies, and advocates decide their fate, educators guide the students to a better life.

But some educators also face challenges. These include some administrators, who seem unsupportive, a minority of colleagues who bring personal biases into the classroom, budget cuts, and large numbers of traumatized students.

Manolo shares the story of finishing a set of hurdles during gym class. He overheard one teacher tell another: “That’s what they do best—jump fences—that’s how he got here.” The teenager was hurt.

“I know we’re not from the same country, but we need people to help us and not treat us like trash,” he says in a voice near pleading. Remembering the incident today, Manolo says he thought then, “I’ll teach him. I’m strong and better than that.”

And better he is. “He’s a good student,” says Elise, his ELL teacher, explaining that although Manolo doesn’t have a family structure supporting his academics, he manages to overcome his obstacles.

Elise teaches a range of students, including Level 1s, who speak little to no English and lack a language basis to help them function, comprehend, and respond in a general classroom setting. She was able to provide Manolo with direct reading and writing support, tutoring, care, and advocacy. In three months, she says, he was speaking “a little” English.

unaccompanied_minors_3But Elise admits that the yearly influx of newcomers makes one-on-one instruction increasingly difficult. The 2013 – 2014 school year ended with roughly 30 Level 1 students. This school year began with nearly 25 Level 1 students. The number is expected to grow by at least 35 percent by June 2015. Neighboring school districts know how to handle the influx because they’ve been doing it longer. Elise’s high school, meanwhile, struggles.

“Some counties have newcomer centers, we don’t. The onus is on us to do everything,” she says. “We test and place the kids. We maintain their records and evaluate them for special education services. We educate and parent them—and we’re asked to do everything else the rest of the teachers in the building do, which is very unfair.”

The high school’s ELL teachers do what they can, from buying extra school supplies to getting parents into the district’s parent involvement program—an effort that provides information about conferences, grades, scheduling, and where to look for information online. Students with families in the program tend to do better, Elise says.

Fanning the Flames

But other issues plague Elise and her colleagues.

The school district has continuously eliminated ELL teaching assistants. They often help facilitate small classroom discussions or allow teachers to work one on one with students. “It’s hard to manage 24 kids in a reading Level 1 class without the help of an assistant,” Elise says.

The school district claims the assistants have been replaced with ELL teachers, but there seems to be a glitch. As Leah, a middle school ELL teacher explains, two full-time assistants were replaced with a point-five teacher at her school. “How are two full-time assistants who help teach 16 blocks equivalent to a point-five teacher who teaches three full-time blocks? It makes no sense.”

Schools new to this situation must be patient and staff must be open-minded and think outside the box.

At times, newcomers face challenges from administrators. At one high school, the principal and other administrators appear unsupportive, using a tone of voice that is unsympathetic to students. Elise’s colleague, Amy, says that trust must be es- tablished from the onset to help newcomers adjust. A harsh tone is “not how you get the kids to open up, trust you, and want to go to school,” she says.

Leah thinks this mindset exists because there are not enough advocates for ELLs. “They’re seen as the blackest spot on the chart rather than ‘Hey, look!These kids are walking around with two languages,’ if we do this right. If we do this wrong, we can make them illiterate in two languages.”

The claim is supported by a 2014 NEA report that helps define “advocacy” and strengthen educators’ capacity to advocate for ELLs. Findings from “I Am an ELL Advocate” indicate a positive perception of ELLs is an imperative part of advocating for them. Recommendations from the report suggested that educators should see the students’ languages and cultures as an asset, not a deficit.

Supportive Systems

Some schools do yeoman’s work for ELLs and have systems that build students’ success. Highlands Elementary School in Osceola County, Fla., is an example. With a 49 percent Hispanic population—many of whom only speak Spanish—the school offers a dual-language program that provides morning instruction in students’ native lan- guage and English instruction in the afternoon.

Valerie Rivera, an ESOL compliance specialist for the district, oversees the program. She says that for students to successfully acquire English skills “they must be fluent in their first language.” From there, students can transition into English more quickly.

unaccompanied_minors_1Some D.C. area schools don’t have growing pains. One U.S. history middle school teacher calls her principal extremely supportive and believes “all are welcome.” This gives students the confidence to learn in a safe environment and it empowers teachers to collaborate and find the best ways to teach them.

“We’re able to work in a cross-curricula setting, pull students out to work in small groups, modify instruction, and translate materials,” the educator says, adding that “schools new to this situation must be patient and staff must be open-minded and think outside the box.”

Though these educators shared different experiences, they all stressed the importance of professional development. None of the schools referenced in this story have received cultural competency training, including the middle school that has seen success and has the most experience with newcomers.

Elise also supports the creation of a program that would smooth the reunification of students and parents. Before rejoining a parent in the U.S., many of her students have raised themselves—some for as long as 10 years. Reunited with their parents, they don’t view the adults as authoritative figures, which can lead to behavioral issues.

New arrivals also need a good parent liaison.

In Elise’s school, that’s Carla, who works closely with counselors. Carla’s main task is working with families and with helping to validate students’ pain so they can heal from emotional wounds. Once undocumented herself, Carla fully understands that students who fled from horrible situations, or were left behind by parents, need a lot of support.

“Everyone needs to value where these students come from. They’re survivors and they want to do well. It’s important to respect them and recognize what makes them unique,” saying that “they have tal- ent that they themselves don’t recognize. We need to help them see it.”

Manolo doesn’t work with Carla because he’s a good student, and despite falling asleep with books on his chest from the exhaustion of working five nights a week plus weekends, he’s on track to receive his high school diploma in 2016.

It’s a goal he’s determined to reach, especially after his long and painful journey to the U.S., and the disappointment that followed from his brief stay with his father to the struggles to learn English and acculturate. “Having a diploma…[I] can get a better job and more money so I can help my mom,” says the teen who plans to become a gourmet chef.

Photos: Luis Gomez