Oakland Teachers Struggle to Get Help for Kids Fleeing Violence

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Castlemont High School teacher Carrie Haslanger goes over an assignment with a newcomer ethnic studies class. (Zaidee Stavely/KQED)

Unaccompanied minors fleeing violence in Central America are still arriving to live with family members or guardians in communities across California, while they wait for their court dates to find out if they can stay in this country. In fact, the numbers of children being detained at the U.S.-Mexico border has more than doubled in October and November compared with a year ago.

In California, Los Angeles County has the largest number of these kids, and Alameda County is next. A steady stream of newcomers in Oakland has now filled all four of the school district's high school newcomer programs to capacity.

In her first-period ethnic studies class for newcomers, Castlemont High School teacher Carrie Haslanger goes over how to communicate feelings in English.

"Scared. Repítelo: scared," she says. The class repeats the word. "Very good. ¿Y cómo se dice poderoso en ingles? Powerful."

Of the 10 students in this class, eight arrived just last week, from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. For the other two, it's their very first day. Then, halfway through the class, three more students show up. Haslanger receives them with a smile.


"Yes, more students, great! Bienvenidos," she says.

Close to 500 Central American students seeking refuge enrolled in Oakland schools since the district started tracking them in June 2013. The newcomer program at Castlemont High School was set up just this year, because three other high schools with newcomer programs were full. The district expected 100 new arrivals to enroll at Castlemont throughout the year, but the program was at capacity before winter break. Oakland Unified just announced four new teacher positions for newcomers and is looking at where to enroll new high school students who arrive in January.

Being able to go to school in Oakland is a relief for some students.

"I stopped going to school for a  year in Honduras because the gangs would wait outside and kidnap people," says one teenage girl, in Spanish, at her attorney's office at Centro Legal de la Raza.  Her attorney asked not to disclose her name or school because her asylum case is ongoing.

She says she was afraid in Honduras because girls with light-brown hair were being targeted by gangs. "They say only the women in the gangs can have light hair," she says, "so they rape girls and kill them. They put rocks in their intimate parts."

Teachers are having to learn fast how to teach kids English and subject content at the same time, and how to support children with extremely high levels of trauma.

"The reason I teach emotion words in the beginning is, in ethnic studies, we work to make sure all stories are told. And I start by saying the most important story is yours," says Carrie Haslanger. "So giving them the first six words you saw today, happy, sad, angry, powerful, and then expanding the wheel so they're able to say depressed, blessed, optimistic, energetic. And from there we'll go into learning about ethnicity and race and class and gender. But first, that’s too much when you don't know how to say good morning."

Oakland teacher Carrie Haslanger is works hard to provide emotional and academic support to her newcomer students at Castlemont High School.
Oakland teacher Carrie Haslanger works hard to provide emotional and academic support to her newcomer students at Castlemont High School. (Zaidee Stavely/KQED)

Haslanger coordinates the newcomer program at Castlemont. Most of her students start in ninth grade, even if they are 16 or 17 when they arrive, since they don’t usually have credits they can transfer to high school. They take P.E. and music with other students, and they take five classes as a cohort. Teachers have to adapt these classes so they can teach English at the same time as algebra, science and computers.

That's just one of the challenges teachers face.

"These students are fleeing a level of violence that I don’t know we can really comprehend in this country," says Haslanger. "Two students I’m working with right now, one of them has seen massacres [of people] by the government ... in front of his eyes."

That kind of trauma affects kids’ ability to learn and the way they react in the classroom. Haslanger says teachers get an hour and a half of training on how to teach English learners once a month, and they receive some training in teaching children who have experienced trauma, but she says it's not enough.

"When a teacher raises their voice at a young person and yells at them, that kid who has experienced trauma, sometimes they won't react, but the ones I’m working with are becoming defiant and angry and acting out," she says. Haslanger wants to see more training for teachers and translators for newcomers, as well as more after-school programs and mental health therapists.

At the height of the national media's attention to the children fleeing violence in Central America, Oakland Unified used private funds to hire a coordinator, Ariana Flores, to refer students to legal help and coordinate mental health services.

Almost every day, Flores can be found helping enroll students in school, handing out backpacks and Spanish-English dictionaries. Flores has referred hundreds of kids to free legal help, partially paid for by the city of Oakland, and she works hard to get them mental health services through community organizations that partner with the district.  Alameda County set aside money for school-based mental health providers to bill for these services, since these students don't have health insurance. Still, there's a huge need for more Spanish-speaking therapists.

"We’re going to keep getting kids all year round, and on any given day a child can lose their housing, or can be triggered to a point where these emotions they’ve been tamping down for months come to a head," says Flores. "It becomes this really difficult game of, all right, we’ve got three spots left and, you know, we’ve got six kids. This one kid is crying uncontrollably in class, this other kid is getting into fights. And which three do we choose?"

That question could become a lot trickier in coming months, as school districts like Oakland begin to enroll some of the thousands of kids now being detained on the border.