On her first day of classes at San Francisco International High School, Jennifer Chavac, an 11th grader, was busy. This is her third year at this school and she’s proven to be a dedicated student. Today, she was in charge of showing City and School District officials what her Science class is like.
Her most important task, however, was serving as a role model for the young immigrant students appearing for their first day of classes—a number that has jumped with the recent increase in unaccompanied minors coming into the United States. The Los Angeles Unified School System expected more than 1,000 new immigrant students, according to the LA Times and the same story estimated that 60,000 unaccompanied minors will be absorbed in school systems across the country.
The entry on the first day of school begins in the most mundane of ways.
“Today is about finding your way around because some teachers don’t have homerooms yet,” Chavac said.
SFIHS opened in 2009 with 37 students and during the school year of 2012-2013, the school had 326 students enrolled. All of the students are recent immigrants and learning English as a second language. The maximum capacity of the school is 400. The school has seen a 25 percent increase in unaccompanied minors enrolling in the last six years—a group that the school has accepted since its inception.
Superintendent Richard Carranza warned that the number of unaccompanied children is surpassing the capacity of schools in San Francisco and that around 150 or more students will be enrolling at other high schools in the city. However, the School District has hired a full-time social worker to be at this school. Teachers and counselors are also trained to see where the children’s needs are and to connect them with services including legal representation and housing assistance.
“A significant amount of children [in our school], about 30% of them are working, cleaning houses or helping relatives. They are working [long hours] to be able to help pay rent,” said principal Julie Kessler.
School and city officials hope to spark a conversation nationwide on successful solutions aimed towards supporting the unprecedented wave of unaccompanied migrant minors that have been arriving to California ready to start the school year.
District 9 Supervisor David Campos visited on the first day and recalled, “I was the lawyer for the school before and the establishment of this institution is an achievement,” he said.
Campos said he was in the Federal Immigration Court to make sure that the rights of immigrant children are protected and that they have access to fair legal representation.
Back in the Science classroom, Chavac, 16 years old, explained to Campos and Carranza that the newcomers to the school are helped by the returning students.
Campos shared his story with Chavac, telling her in Spanish that he too came from Guatemala when he was 14 not knowing how to speak English. “But you can’t give up, don’t give up. You just keep working hard, and you will see,” he said finishing of with an encouraging “Sí se puede, sí se puede.”