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Denver Public School scrambles to educate surge of migrant students: “So many needs”

By Anna Alejo

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    DENVER (KCNC) — In the past year, the city of Denver has served more than 36,000 migrants from the southern border.

After years of reporting a declining school-age population, Denver Public Schools is seeing a surge in the enrollment of newcomer students – many from Venezuela – a country in a deep economic and political crisis.

McMeen Elementary is a dual language school that has long embraced students who are new to the United States.

“The positive thing is we love international: new things, new families, new cultures, new languages, we love all that here, we embrace it every chance we can,” said Jean Boylan, a grandparent and volunteer at the school. “That has been completely washed away this year though because we’re completely inundated with pure survival.”

Boylan’s kids attended McMeen, and now she has a grandson enrolled there. She became a full time volunteer after she said she saw the school “brought to its knees” by the number of new students.

“There’s a very cute table over here where they’re all speaking Spanish with a couple of English translators,” Boylan described in the lunchroom nearly filled to capacity in the middle of the school day.

McMeen has welcomed new students throughout this school year – sometimes as many as 15 new-to-country students a week – and it’s overwhelming teachers and staff.

“These are children who have literally walked from Venezuela to get to Denver,” Boylan added.

Lyly Zaragoza’s kindergarten class now has 32 students – almost the maximum allowed in the teacher’s union contract. “It’s a big number and it can get a bit overwhelming at times just because there’s so many needs,” Zaragoza said. “Some of them have never been at school before, so they don’t even know how to hold a pencil.”

And many students have struggled to get through the school day.

Zaragoza said, “I have kids that will spend most of the day crying and asking what time, what time do I go home? What time do I see my mom? And since they’re so stuck on that they can’t really learn.”

“His integration process has been slow. It has been tough for him. He is the one who’s been most affected by the change,” describes Genesis Salloum in Spanish about her son Maikol who is in first grade at McMeen.

Salloum says she and her husband and three children walked across seven countries to get here from Venezuela.

She saw five dead people along the way, trying to shield her kids from seeing them. “Yes, the trip was hard, it was a little difficult, getting here was not easy,” Salloum said.

Her baby Giancarlos has a seizure disorder. The family was granted a humanitarian parole at the border given the baby’s health.

He’s been able to get treatment, but brother Maikol is struggling to adapt and misses the support of his large family back home.

McMeen projected enrollment this year at 546 kids. It’s now serving 671.

The DPS Board of Education recently discussed the unprecedented surge in enrollment of migrant students and the need to direct more dollars to affected schools.

drienne Endres is executive director of Multilingual Education for the district.

“We see it and we’re feeling it too. And trying to do absolutely everything we can to make it sustainable for our teachers, for our educators for our building leaders, and to make it a safe and welcoming and an academically sound environment for our students too,” Endres said.

Zaragoza says McMeen’s leadership and many families have been incredibly supportive. But she needs interventionists to help bring kids up to grade level.

The school isn’t getting clarity, she says, on when help is coming.

“I think we’re all feeling stressed. And a little like, I don’t know if helpless is the right term, but like what can I do? Because I want to help the kids at the end of the day and what more can I do?” she added.

On Thursday, The Denver Public Schools Foundation announced the creation of the Newcomer Student and Family Fund to send money directly to schools welcoming the migrant students. A donor has already committed $50,000 to help McMeen specifically.

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