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Dallas ISD helps immigrants get started in school
Riding to the Rescue

A child from a foreign country who speaks no English and who must register for school obviously needs help, but who is going to come to the rescue? In the Dallas Independent School District (DISD), the answer may be the Student Intake Center. Created by DISD in the summer of 2003, the center introduces new immigrants, both children and parents, to the city's public schools.

The center's 11-person staff shows newcomers how to navigate an unfamiliar bureaucracy and complete the paperwork the district requires. In addition, the center provides the necessary immunizations, an application for free or reduced-price meals, if needed, and an orientation on the district's student code of conduct.

Since the center opened, it has helped more than 2,200 students, according to Judith Tomes, the center's director. Some students come with their parents; some come alone. Some are homeless.

"One boy came all the way from Ecuador all by himself, and the authorities found his uncle who agreed to take care of him," Tomes said.

New immigrants are not required to use the center; nor is it a prerequisite to enrollment. Tomes said the staff is not concerned with students' legal status. The center's goal is to get the children in school promptly. Every child registering through the center receives school supplies and a backpack.

"You should see how proud they are when they get those backpacks," Tomes said.

Barriers to learning
Of the more than 2,200 children using the center during the 2003-04 school year, the vast majority--about 90 percent--speak Spanish, but the program also has served students who speak other languages, including Arabic, Korean, German, Farsi, French, Swahili and Vietnamese.

At the intake center, specialists assess each child's English skills to ensure the child is placed in the proper grade and educational setting. Some students are placed in bilingual classes, while others are placed in English as a Second Language (ESL) classes.

"In bilingual classes, children are taught in their native language while learning English, and in ESL classes, children are taught strictly in English," said Rosalinda Boland, the district's director of Bilingual and ESL.

The largest group of children--more than 600--receiving help in 2004 are in the ninth grade. The reason so many are in this grade, Tomes says, is that many families wait until their children are older before they enter the country because they believe it is safer than traveling with small children.

Moreover, all children age 14 and older are initially placed in the ninth grade with intensive ESL classes. After an average of about six months, the center's staff reviews and assesses each child's progress to determine what they need to successfully join regular classrooms.

Parents too
"While the children are the reason we started the center, our work with the parents has become a significant part of our program," Tomes said.

The center offers ESL classes for parents for three hours a day, three days a week from 8:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m.

Tomes said she hopes to start a GED class on Saturdays soon and add a computer class later. The center already offers classes in money management, nutrition and using public transportation.

The center has an annual budget of about $380,000, but it also works with community organizations, such as Parkland Hospital, Catholic Charities and the International Rescue Committee, to provide help.

DISD created the Student Intake Center to accelerate the appropriate registration and placement of students new to the country within the time frame required by state law, said Mike Moses, the district's superintendent.

"The center now has certified testers who coordinate the testing and placement of immigrant students, and teacher assistants are serving students the first day of school," Moses said. "A long-term commitment has been established at the center with the students and their families."

Pam Wagner