Somerville Schools Welcome New Students Who Fled Danger

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Somerville, MA, Nov. 5, 2104 – Pedro sought a safer life. He traveled to Somerville from Chalantenango, El Salvador on foot, by bus, car, and in the back of a tractor-trailer truck.

Now he’s one of 60 new students from Central America who have enrolled in Somerville Public Schools after making it to the Texas border on their own or with other children, part of a wave of 70,000 youth who crossed the border earlier this year. And the district is concentrating on when those students are going, not where they’ve been.

“As soon as the student comes to Somerville, they are our students, period, and we don’t need to know, and we’re not interested in knowing about their residency status,” said Sarah Davila, the schools’ District Administrator of Programs, English Learner Education and Family and Community Partnerships.“We want them to be successful.”

Pedro – who, like other students in this article, is not being identified by his real name – had a perilous journey. He has a gash wound in his arm from an injury he got on the way. He ended up in a cell in Texas and then was bounced to an immigrant holding center in Florida before being reunited with his father, who works as a cook in Cambridge. By the time he got to Somerville, he had a lung infection that landed him in the hospital.

But the hazards of his hometown justified the risky journey, he said.

“It’s really dangerous there,” Pedro said. “There are thugs who don’t leave you in peace.”

Maria, 15, lived with her grandparents, also in Chalantenango. She never remembers meeting her parents before arriving in Somerville.

“I told my parents that, since I was turning 15, I needed to be with them,” she said. “Living with your grandparents is not the same as living with your parents.”

Miguel, 16, came from San Vincente, El Salvador. Back home he lived with an aunt. His mother works for a local bakery here. Miguel said he had been harassed but never hurt by the local toughs. However, one of his friends was regularly ransomed, Miguel said, because he wore nice clothing. Local gang members assumed he had money. They demanded higher and higher payments. Then one day, the friend’s cousin disappeared.

“He suspected that the gang was responsible,” Miguel said. “So he and his family started to save up money and now he lives up here.”

Almost 70,000 young people, mostly from Central America, were apprehended at the U.S. border during fiscal year 2014 (Oct. 1, 2013-Sept. 30 2014), up 77 percent from a year earlier, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Most of them come from Honduras, El Salvador or Guatemala. Young migrants from those and all non-contiguous countries have the right to apply for asylum once they arrive. If their application is accepted, they get a court date and are then sent to a shelter or to the home of a family member, if one can be identified.

Those three countries are among the most dangerous in the world, according to 2012 United Nations statistics. Honduras had the world’s highest per-capita homicide rate in 2012: 90.4 homicides per 100,000 people, according to the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime. El Salvador came in fourth, with 41.2 homicides per 100,000, and Guatemala was fifth, with a rate of 39.9 homicides per 100,000 people.

Adapting to the classroom

The youth who make it to the border and arrive in Somerville face tough odds, according to school counselors and teachers, but the district is ready to take them in. All children in Massachusetts have the right to free public education, regardless of immigrant status or national origin. Somerville takes that right seriously, said Sarah Davila, District Administrator of Programs, English Learner Education and Family and Community Partnerships for the Somerville Public Schools.

Unaccompanied youth is a particular profile,” Davila added. “They come with particular needs and we need to respond to their needs.”

“Whatever student comes to our district will bring strengths and will add to our diverse community and we want them here. We want to give them that message,” Davila added.

The Somerville Public School system calculates that about 60 new students will arrive each school year, but this year the numbers will be much higher. While some students who crossed the border enrolled during the previous school year, in just the first two months of this academic year 48 new students – some unaccompanied minors, others who came to the community with their families – have enrolled, Davila reported. Some of them are high school age but have only a third or fourth grade level.

“Knowing that we have an increase in beginner students…  we’ve shifted our cluster of courses,” Davila said.

Even beginning students take all their courses in English, but now there are more entry-level math and sciences courses. In addition to regular courses, all English language learners take English as a Second Language, many of them from Sarah Sandager.

On a recent morning, a classroom of ninth graders chanted, “Today is October 28, 2014!” before getting back their corrected homework – vocabulary worksheets. Sandager moved up and down the rows, cajoling one student to do a re-write, praising another.

“They have so many challenges,” Sandager explained in an interview. Some have left behind parents or siblings, others have to work 40 hours a week, she said.

“You’re dealing with more than just them learning a language. You have to think about their whole self. The social and emotional component,” she said.

Pedro misses his mother but talks to her on the telephone every day. His dream is to graduate and get a good job “so my family and I can live a better life.”

In the meantime, he hopes the Somerville community will make an effort to understand the immigrant wave from Central America.

“I hope they… look how things are in our countries,” Pedro said. “I just ask people to understand us and give us a little support that we might need and that they don’t discriminate against us.”

The schools are looking for bilingual volunteers to mentor or help with homework. Anyone interested can contact the volunteer coordinator, Jen Capuano, at JCapuano@k12.somerville.ma.us. Or if you want to donate winter clothing for teens, call the Parent Information Center – 617-629-5670. 

A version of this story appeared in the Somerville Journal.