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‘Breaks my heart’: Teachers struggle with communicating with migrant kids

(NewsNation) — In the rural town of Albertville, Alabama, with a population of under 23,000 and almost 42 miles to the closest airport, 65% of students are Latino, some of whom have never had a formal education, even in their native Spanish.

But for school officials and teachers alike, figuring out how to provide students — 35% of whom are learning English for the first time — with a proper educational experience becomes a task that is equal parts motivation and frustration.

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Elisabeth Smith teaches a newcomer class in Albertville, meaning that everyone she teaches has been in the United States for less than two years, and the majority of the kids have been in the country for less than 12 months.

“Ten kids in a room at one time speaking three languages, and then two days a week, there’s not even a bilingual aide here that speaks their language,” Smith, an English Language Arts teacher, says.

Bart Reeves, the superintendent of the Albertville City School District, says the district picked up 30 English language learning students in January and another 29 in February.

Yet for teachers like Smith, who only speaks English herself, figuring out how to relate to students who come from backgrounds much different from her own can be emotional at times.

“It breaks my heart seeing these kids go from classroom to classroom not knowing what’s going on,” she said.

How migrants stretch US resources

Coupled with the communication gap are issues with funding as communities across the country continue to grapple with how to pay for the influx of migrants arriving from the U.S. southern border.

Martin County, Florida, is even farther from the U.S.-Mexico border than are towns like Albertville. Situated about halfway between Orlando and Miami, Martin County wouldn’t appear to be directly affected by the nation’s ongoing migrant crisis.

But one wouldn’t know that by looking at the community’s jail.

For the first time in his 12 years as Martin County’s top law enforcement official, Sheriff William Snyder says he has scores of inmates on sleeping mats that cover the common areas of the jail.

He blames the overcrowding on those in the U.S. illegally, which account for about 50% of the jail’s problems with overcrowding.

“We’re not a sanctuary city,” Snyder says.

In addition to the number of migrant inmates filling his jail, Snyder says that immigrants don’t tend to get bond as easily as Americans. Given the jail’s problems with overcrowding, the sheriff says that total lockdowns at the facility are impossible. That alone puts his deputies at greater risk, the sheriff says.

“If I don’t get some relief, I would probably have to go to the courts and start asking the judges for early releases on less violent offenders,” Snyder says.

The costs of caring for migrants

Like in other places, Denver has experienced serious funding questions when it comes to figuring out how to account for caring for the more than 40,000 new arrivals who have been shipped to the Mile High City from the southern border by GOP Texas Gov. Greg Abbott.

Denver Health and the nearby University of Colorado Health are both buckling under their share of emergency care costs for migrants who cross the border illegally and wind up being sent to Denver.

Dr. Steven Federico, a primary care and pediatric physician with Denver Health, estimates that just in the past year, the health system tended to 20,000 medical visits that are linked to the city’s migrant population.

“That’s a lot of care that we weren’t planning on giving,” Federico said, adding, “We’re going to need some additional public funding to make it going forward.”

However, local municipalities aren’t the only places seeing their budgets stretched by the migrant crisis.

Federal officials estimate that $5.5 billion has been spent nationwide on providing medical care to migrants and asylum seekers. They have used funding from local governments where resources would typically be reserved for area residents.

Providing care on a budget

That includes schools like Elisabeth Smith’s back in Alabama.

In Albertville, local officials have grown concerned that the city’s tax rolls are being depleted by multiple families living in single-family homes. Yet even when the local school district receives falsified bills, no students are turned away.

Reeves, the superintendent, says the district’s mission is simple.

“Every kid that walks through that door, we’re going to love them, we’re going to teach them to the best of our ability,” Reeves said.

That has taken a toll on teachers like Brown.

“I go to sleep at night worried about these kids all the time,” she said. “Are we doing enough for them? Are we helping them the best that we can?’”

She added, “Yeah, it feels like we’re not doing enough. But we’re trying.”

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