EL PASO — Luisa García always dreamt of attending college in the United States, but her dream of an American education was made a reality in February years before it was supposed to after her father was kidnapped and murdered in Juárez, México.
Luisa and her family fled to El Paso, Texas where she is now in the ninth grader at Franklin High School. With a raging drug war just a few miles from its doors, Franklin High School has become a refuge for families like the Garcías, looking to escape the tension of living in a war-torn city.
“Everybody has welcomed me,” Luisa said. “All the teachers are willing to help me out when I need help, and I even think it is much easier than my school in Juárez because the teachers are so willing to help me.”
Although the transition to El Paso has not been too difficult for Luisa, it has brought a different kind of hardship to other students who left the dangers of living in Juárez. Children from México entering school in El Paso often have difficulty learning English, and adapting to their new environment.
“Many of the kids coming from Juárez are educated, smart and know their history. They know that less than 200 years ago, half of their county was taken away,” Samuel Arrieta, an English teacher at Franklin said. “Now they are seeking refuge over here, and people start complaining.”
Rival drug cartels have been fighting in Juárez since 2007. More than 35,000people have been killed since the surge in violence began, according to the Mexican government figures.
As the violence in Juárez increased, the El Paso Independent School District saw the largest increase citywide in the number of students enrolled in English as a Second Language Programs (ESL/Bilingual) and students classified as being Limited English Proficiency (LEP).
Between 2007 and 2010, the district saw a 1.5 per cent increase in students classified as LEP and a 2.2 percent increase in students enrolled in ESL/Bilingual programs.
Although the district-wide increase is small, some campuses within the district, such as Franklin High School, a school of about 3,000 students located on the west side of El Paso, have seen huge increases.
From 2007 to 2010, Franklin saw a 350 percent increase in students enrolled in English as a Second Language Programs. The increase is the largest in the city.
According to figures attained from the Texas Education Agency’s website, Franklin also had a 74 percent increase during this period in the number of students classified as having Limited English Proficiency.
Joe, a science teacher at Franklin who asked that his last name not be used because he did not have authorization from school officials to talk on the record, said that he has seen these changes in his classroom.
“I’ve seen more students who are coming into the classroom and know barely any English at all, and it is obvious that their first language is Spanish,” Joe said. “
He said that since 2007 — and especially this school year — it seems that he is getting more LEP students in his classes.
“At the start of the year it might seem like a minimal increase, but we go through stretches of time where every week, or every other week, I get a new student in class that is Limited English Proficiency,” he said.
Officials with the EPISD, the largest district in El Paso, would not respond to questions regarding the increase of ESL and LEP students at Franklin or in the district overall.
Franklin’s feeder school, Hornedo/Brown Middle School, saw a 132 percent increase in ESL enrollment, and a 62 percent increase in LEP students between 2007 and 2010.
Through a written statement, district officials said that they have seen an overall increase in enrollment numbers since 2007, not just in the number of students enrolling in ESL programs. But Franklin’s total student population decreased by 1.6 percent, according to TEA figures, and the district saw only a .6 percent increase in enrollment in its schools.
“Increases in enrollment since 2007 can be attributed to the additional troops moving to the area due to the Base Realignment and Closure Act (BRAC) and non-military families moving into the community from various locations,” EPISD officials said in a written statement.
For Jane, a math teacher at Franklin who also asked to remain anonymous, the increases in non-English speaking students in her classroom is causing disruptions.
“I have seen more students that speak less English over the years,” she said. “I’ve seen students with Chihuahua plates being dropped off at the school. Their grades are much lower.”
Every student in the school is offered tutoring in order to help improve their grades, Jane said but added that most students do not take advantage of it.
“I just want them to be here legally and pay their taxes so that we can hire more teachers and support the tax base,” she said. “Right now they are sucking us dry. For these kids it seems there is no need for them to learn the lessons. I don’t think they want to learn. We have changed everything for them.”
But Arrieta hasn’t encountered negative situations with his students. He thinks a lack of desire to learn has a lot to do with how teachers treat their students.
“They first thing (students from México) think is ‘oh you don’t like me because I don’t know English,’ and so they usually get an attitude of screw you then, I’m not going to learn it,” Arrieta said. “Some of these kids are acting up in other classes because sometimes the only way to show the teacher they have control is to fail on purpose.”
Luisa said she struggles to correctly articulate her words in English, but fully understands the language.
“I understand what people are saying and sometimes I mispronounce things, but my teachers and friends never say anything about it and understand what I am saying,” she said.
Arrieta said he genuinely cares about the welfare of all this students, regardless of where they come from, and each day he asks his students what is going on in their lives. He said he tries to teach them about the suffering that people have had to experience before being accepted.
“Here in America, the situation in México is seen as a Mexican problem. People think, why are they coming over here if this is a Mexican problem,” Arrieta said. “The Holocaust was seen as a Jewish problem initially as well. When we teach it in history then we make a big deal out of it, but when it is happening we do not care.”
EPISD officials said that they require evidence, including proof of residency, to ensure that the students are eligible to attend school in the district. This proof may include a utility or lease bill, according to EPISD’s website.
Jane said that in the past she has tried to call a student’s parents and has run into phone numbers that are out of service or don’t belong to the parents she is trying to call.
Blanca García, Luisa’s mother, said Luisa and her older daughter, who is also at Franklin, are both U.S. citizens, and that she had no problem enrolling her daughters at Franklin. She was asked for utility bill, a phone number for the person she was living with, and the social security numbers for her daughters.
No one, García said, has met her with resistance.
“Everyone here has been so welcoming, and is doing everything possible to help my children and my family be successful,” García said.
Luisa said she knows of several people who have come over from Juárez, and are now in school at Franklin.
For Arrieta, it doesn’t matter if the students who have come over are here legally or not.
“Who cares about taxes, who cares about test scores, if it means saving somebody’s life? What is more important, money or a human life?” he said. “Personally, give me all the students from Juárez, stick them all in my classroom. I will make sure that they learn and that they aren’t getting shot at.”
But paying property taxes ensures that all EPISD students get a quality education. Currently EPISD is making budget cuts because it faces losing between $14 million to $42 million in state funding, according to an article in The El Paso Times.
The district has already begun making cuts in teacher positions, including At-risk coordinators and ESL staff throughout the district.
Despite the cuts, EPISD is committed to continue to fund programs like ESL.
“The district supports maintaining adequate funding to provide services and specialized attention to all students,” district officials said.
In 2007, EPISD had an annual expenditure of $43.8 million, or 11.6 percent of their budget, dedicated to ESL/Bilingual programs. In 2010, it was only $16.2 million, or 3.6 percent of their budget.
After first saying that their budget for ESL programs was the same, EPISD officials then said that the discrepancy in its budget was due to changes made by the state of Texas to no longer include bilingual and ESL teacher salaries in the formula.
However, according to the TEA website, the formula has been the same since 2007. Other districts in El Paso maintained similar budgets for 2007 and 2010 for its ESL programs. Socorro Independent School district even had a slight increase in its ESL budget.
EPISD officials would not return phone calls to further explain the discrepancy.
It is unlikely that because of these deficits and decrease in ESL funding that students from Juárez will have the type of attention that Arrieta would like for them to receive.
“It would be fantastic if the school would designate one counselor to really talk to the kids from Juárez. It should be someone who really truly cares, and it’s helping them just because it’s their job,” Arrieta said. “Hearing that on the announcements would make a big difference. The kids will know, okay this school is friendly.”
Not all the students coming from Juárez are struggling, disruptive or angry about being in the United States, Arrieta said. Victor Carrasco, a 16-year-old sophomore at the school can attest to that as well.
“They aren’t really troubled students. They are well-behaved,” Carrasco said. “I think it’s just that people have their preconceived ideas, thoughts and opinions and don’t consider what these students are going through with an open mind.”