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Colorado schools struggle to keep up with new enrolments of migrant students

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

More than 5,000 migrant children have enrolled in Colorado classrooms since the summer, and that has put a real strain on some schools. Colorado Public Radio's Jenny Brundin visited one to see the changes that it's making to try to welcome and teach the new arrivals.

NADIA MADAN-MORROW: That's math intervention happening there. And then behind him is reading intervention, since I'm talking about creative use of spaces.

JENNY BRUNDIN, BYLINE: Principal Nadia Madan-Morrow points to what used to be just a library.

MADAN-MORROW: We're working on trying to get something to break up the sound 'cause it's noisy in there right now.

BRUNDIN: Every bit of space in Place Bridge Academy is full right now. The school is designed to serve immigrants and refugees, but even this school wasn't quite prepared for the influx.

MADAN-MORROW: Frankly, in schools, we were really caught off guard.

BRUNDIN: Over 100 more students than it expected showed up this fall. Literacy teacher Carmen Kuri says the teachers who spoke Spanish could start teaching students how the U.S. school system works, but when a class of 30 or more kids went to art or PE and teachers didn't speak Spanish...

CARMEN KURI: Things were going crazy. Some teachers were overwhelmed because they didn't know how to communicate, and they didn't understand the background of the students.

BRUNDIN: Two teachers quit. It was too much. School leaders quickly realized they'd not only need more teachers, but would have to reconfigure classes because, Madan-Morrow says, something was different about many of the new students.

MADAN-MORROW: Our students that are newly arrived from Venezuela, many of them have had very long journeys to get here - about two years to get here. So we have some students that have never been in school. We have some students that haven't been in school for several years.

RENE NORIS FERNANDEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

BRUNDIN: School leaders hired five more teachers, most from Spanish-speaking countries. Third-grade teacher Rene Norris Fernandez goes over double-digit addition with students in Spanish. Research shows the more kids can get up to speed academically in their first language, the more quickly they'll learn English. But students in this bilingual class have extra challenges.

UNIDENTIFIED CLASSROOM AIDE: Ba (ph).

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT: Ba. No, be. Be. (ph).

BRUNDIN: A student works on the sounds for ba, be, bi, bo, bu (ph). He's 9 years old.

UNIDENTIFIED CLASSROOM AIDE: (Speaking Spanish).

BRUNDIN: The classroom aide says the boy is new to the country, from Venezuela, and has never been to school before, doesn't know how to read. Here's Noris Fernandez.

NORIS FERNANDEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

BRUNDIN: He says many children don't know letters or sounds of letters. Many move from city to city in other countries, their parents working long hours. They often couldn't go to school. But today, every kid is busy working at tables, helping each other and learning.

MARISOL CHAVEZ: You're welcome, sweets. One hat, one pair of gloves, guys.

BRUNDIN: In the hallway, a staff member distributes donated hats and gloves to students. The basic needs of families are tremendous. Some kids live in shelters. The clinic at the school has a waitlist for students needing mental health services. In essays, some students wrote about dead bodies or dangerous animals they saw on their journey to Colorado. Thirteen-year-old Ashley, with long, curly brown hair, arrived from Venezuela in September.

ASHLEY: (Speaking Spanish).

BRUNDIN: She says one time in Mexico, the bus made a detour, and they were handed over to people who told them to pay or be detained or kidnapped.

ASHLEY: (Speaking Spanish).

BRUNDIN: She thanks God for protecting her family from kidnappers. At school, Ashley's made friends and says the teachers are always there for students.

ASHLEY: (Speaking Spanish).

BRUNDIN: She doesn't always understand class, but tries to catch a bit here and there and get the gist of the topic. Ashley has big goals. She wants to be a pediatrician. Her teacher, Janet Taggart, knows the level of English her students will need even to succeed in high school.

JANET TAGGART: I feel such a strong need to help them move and push them to get as much as they can in the one year that they have newcomer support.

BRUNDIN: You see, students like Ashley are in the newcomer program. That gives them extra supports for one year. Newcomers are students who've had interrupted schooling and also limited skills in both English and their native language.

TAGGART: You will have your headphones on. They will be talking in English, but the words will be in Swahili or in French or in Spanish.

BRUNDIN: The kids watch a video in English...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: When we talk about the harvest feast and what happened...

BRUNDIN: ...Then listen again, reading subtitles in their native language. Every week, dozens more newcomers are arriving in classrooms across metro Denver. It's unclear how many students will stay at the school. Some have already left after their families found more permanent housing farther away. But for those here now...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Good morning, Roadrunners.

BRUNDIN: ...They're happy, eager and grateful to be in a safe place as they learn new things like the lunch menu.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: All right. The lunch menu is broccoli and cheese potatoes, PB & J, if you don't have a nut allergy.

BRUNDIN: For NPR News, I'm Jenny Brundin in Denver.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jenny Brudin