Riverhead School District

Additional 91 ESL students enroll in Riverhead schools over summer

Sister Margaret Smyth of the North Fork Spanish Apostolate (center) with Estabon, 16, and Pedro, 14, and their mother Marta in July. (Credit: Carrie Miller, file)
Sister Margaret Smyth of the North Fork Spanish Apostolate (center) with Estabon, 16, and Pedro, 14, and their mother Marta in July. (Credit: Carrie Miller, file)

As young immigrants known as “border children” continue to reunite with families in Riverhead, the school district is reporting an influx of non-English-speaking students — and is unable to find the necessary personnel to accommodate their growing numbers.

Through July of this year, 4,244 “border children” have ended up in New York State, many fleeing their violence-plagued homelands in Central America, according to data released by the federal Department of Health and Human Services’ office of refugee resettlement. 

Officials said 1,181 of those children have been reunited with family in Suffolk, making it one of the three counties in the nation hosting the most new young immigrants.

Many of those children — who are required by law to attend school — are now living in the Riverhead Central School District. Superintendent Nancy Carney had budgeted an additional $185,000 for the English as a Second Language program heading into this year, creating two new full-time positions for 2014-15.

However, the unexpected spike in arriving children has the district seeking even more qualified candidates, searching as far as Manhattan to help fill one of two additional positions created this summer in response to the influx.

Over the summer, an additional 91 ESL students enrolled in Riverhead schools — with about 60 of them registering in just the last two weeks before school started, according to data provided by the district. That brought the total to 875.

“It is really a significant increase,” said Ms. Carney. “The challenge is making sure you have the support staff needed, and getting that number of students this late makes it very challenging.”

The district had also seen increases in months leading up to the end of the school year.

At the start of the 2013-14 school year, the district had 715 ESL students. During the school year, another 66 students had joined the district, bringing the total to 781 ESL students by June.

Ten years ago, by comparison, the district had only 378 students and 11 teachers in the ESL program. With 875 students, the district is striving to increase the program faculty to 15.

According to Ms. Carney, one new part-time ESL teaching position has been filled at a cost of $30,000. Another full-time position remains unfilled.

Exact costs for each new pupil remain unclear. According to Ms. Carney, “Not every student comes with the same cost.” For example, she said, high school students cost more to educate than elementary students.

However, five years ago, the New York State Department of Education estimated the cost per pupil in RCSD at $12,313 for general education students and $31,740 for special education students.

When making new hires outside the ESL program, Ms. Carney said the district will be seeking bilingual candidates to fill support and clerical positions, hoping to make it easier for students and parents to communicate with district officials.

Over the summer, the district also updated its website to offer Google translate, which allows visitors to view the website in more than 50 languages, Ms. Carney said.

Over that same time, Sister Margaret Smyth of the North Fork Spanish Apostolate said she has helped more than 100 families fill out the necessary paperwork to reunite with their children, also assisting them in enrolling children in nearby schools.

Beyond meeting the children’s linguistic needs, the district is also dealing with how to meet its new pupils’ emotional needs.

Success depends largely on teacher/student interaction, said Theresa McGinnis of the Hofstra University School of Education, who teaches a course on strategies for educating bilingual immigrant children.

“[Teachers] have to recognize that these students do have this life experience that could cause some trauma,” Ms. McGinnis said. “There is a silent period where they are still absorbing everything. It is partly that they are experiencing culture shock.”

Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson announced last month that the masses of unaccompanied children crossing the southwest border appears to be declining from its peak of 10,628 in June, with 5,508 children intercepted just one month later in July.

[email protected]