LAKE WORTH, Florida — In the late afternoon at the multi-colored Guatemalan-Maya Center, teens and kids as young as six were huddled in makeshift classrooms with teachers and high school volunteers. Days of the week and months of the year filled the dry erase boards. The written words were in English, but the children were speaking a jumble of languages: Spanish, a smattering of English, and indigenous Mayan languages like Q’anjob’al, Kachiquel, or Mam—the only ones some of these children are fluent in.
The center, a nonprofit serving immigrants from Guatemala, has been open since the 1980s, when brutal civil war drove many Guatemalan citizens to the United States. Up until a few months ago, the afterschool language program, Escuelita Maya, was frequented by only a handful of elementary school kids. But recently, the program’s enrollment has exploded along with the surge of unaccompanied minors crossing the border, and Escuelita Maya now serves dozens of teens. When the Palm Beach County school district realized they were enrolling at least one of these Central American minors every day, the district’s multicultural department directed their new students to the afterschool program for help with English.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection estimates that since October 2013, 66,000 children and teenagers have crossed the U.S. border without their parents, most of them from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. They’re escaping gangs, street violence, and extreme poverty in their countries and usually coming to meet family members who live here. More than 3,000 children have been dispatched to relatives in Florida. A few weeks ago, many of them entered their first American classroom.
But for the kids learning vocabulary at the center today, the transition has been far from seamless. Some have never been to school or haven’t attended for years. Some aren’t literate in English or Spanish, and only speak Mayan languages, mostly Q’anjob’al.
“[The kids] come here and they’re thrown into these massive high schools,” said Jill Skok, community outreach director at the Guatemalan-Maya Center. “They’re happy to be there,” but it’s hard for them to do work when “they don’t even know the definition of the questions.” Most of their families don’t know English, either.
Hugo, who is polite and shy and looks far younger than his 15 years, is one of these students. He was held in a Texas detention center for three weeks after he crossed the border in May with his older brother. He grew up with his grandparents in a tiny town in Guatemala, speaking only Q’anjob’al. School was too expensive and his family needed him to work, so Hugo traded in pencils for tree farms and corn fields when he was six years old. His mother had been in the United States since he was three, and he “was waiting for the day I could go to school,” he said in broken Spanish.
Hugo recently entered high school in Lake Worth, where only one out of seven of his teachers speaks Spanish. School has been “a little hard” because “I don’t understand a lot of things…Some ladies at school help me in Spanish, but it confuses me at times.” None of the teachers speak his native language.
“We help [the kids] here,” said Skok—many of the center’s teachers and volunteers speak Q’anjobal—“but sometimes they get frustrated and just want the answer.”
Other kids have had better luck; they went to school in their home countries and grew up speaking Spanish. But they’re still dealing with the fallout from their harrowing border-crossing experience, a trauma that sometimes clouds their ability to focus. Diego, 15, got sent back to Guatemala twice before he finally reached his father in Lake Worth in June.
“I was traveling forever, for 25 days in total,” he said. “I think about it always.”
Despite language and education barriers, South Florida school districts are better equipped than most to handle this influx of unaccompanied minors, given their large immigrant populations. Palm Beach County, which includes Lake Worth, has one of the biggest Guatemalan communities in the country. The Miami school district, which got approved for additional federal funds to accommodate a recent surge of mostly Honduran minors, has been dealing with these sorts of students for decades.
“It’s absolutely true that some of these children are arriving illiterate in English and Spanish, and that poses a challenge,” said Alberto Carvalho, superintendent of Miami-Dade County Public Schools. “But it’s not a challenge that we haven’t dealt with before. We’re lucky to have a very diverse teaching population who is also linguistically proficient in a number of languages.”
But some school districts have neither bilingual teachers nor organizations like the Guatemalan-Maya Center. Rachel Diaz, an immigration attorney at the Mennonite Central Committee, recently worked with a 17-year-old boy who’d never been to school until he came to Everglades City, Florida, around two hours west of Miami. The small city has one K-12 school without an ESL program. Only one staff member, a social studies teacher, speaks Spanish.
“That teacher essentially wrote a letter saying, ‘Nice kid, but we don’t have what he needs,’” said Diaz. “He’s here to survive and work, and he doesn’t want to go back. But what do you do? Do you put him in kindergarten? How comfortable would parents be to have a 17-year-old sitting with their six-year-old?”
Diaz said the teen is determined to learn English and become a teacher, but she worries about the domino effect a rejection like this can have. When this 17-year-old tells another unaccompanied minor what happened, “that child may not even bother” enrolling, Diaz said. “For someone who is illiterate, even the paperwork to get in school can be too much.”
Carvalho said Miami-Dade has employed “aggressive outreach” to direct services centers and youth groups to ensure these kids know they have “a right to a free, public education.” But these minors, particularly older teenagers who aren’t legally required to attend school, may face pressure from their families to start working right away; Skok said the center has “lost a few kids” for this reason.
Guardians also may not know the procedure for entry or avoid school officials for fear of being deported. Alex, 15, arrived here earlier this summer, and left school in Guatemala when he was 12. His mother hasn’t yet enrolled him in school because her neighbor told her he needed identification. (This isn’t true; all children can attend school regardless of immigration status.) During a recent consultation at American Friend’s Service Committee in Miami, which provides immigrants free legal services, the mother wondered aloud whether she’d have to pay to enroll her son in school.
Alex said he left school in Guatemala because he wasn’t learning anything, and there were lots of fights and bullying. But he’s excited to go to high school in Miami. “I want to learn English,” he said.
The prospect of free education void of violence or fear is a major reason many of the minors have fled Central America to meet their families. So even though the kids have gone through a trauma most United States citizens will never face, Skok and others say they’re elated to be in the classroom.
During afterschool one day, Skok pulled out a mental health survey that a Catholic Charities psychologist had provided for the center. The teachers helped students fill them out a few days earlier so they could track their progress; the kids rated their mental state from 1 to 10 in a handful of categories. Hugo’s “individual” mind state rated a .5; he missed his sick grandmother, he later explained.
“School,” however, earned a 10.
“They’re excited to learn, so [the challenges of] school don’t phase them,” Skok said. “What they worry about most is being deported. They don’t want to have to leave.”
Education coverage for NBCNews.com is supported by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. NBC News retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.