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Migrants staying at police station turned away from Chicago school: ‘They didn’t have people who spoke Spanish’

Hassly Cespedes, 6, lays on cardboard outside the Chicago Police Department's 3rd District station with her parents.(Armando L. Sanchez/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

It was the first day of school Monday, but 6-year-old Hassly Cespedes stood in line at a soup kitchen instead of in a cafeteria lunch line.

With her hair tied up in two buns and wearing a floral jumpsuit, the young girl had been excited for her first day of school at Emmett Louis Till Math and Science Academy, said her mother, 26-year-old Eliany Piña, as they waited for a meal at Martin Temple AME Zion Church in Woodlawn. The family had arrived in Chicago from Venezuela 10 days ago.

But instead, Hassly was turned away from the school Monday morning with seven other elementary school-aged kids who are staying with their migrant families at the 3rd District police station, despite filling out paperwork, according to Britt Hodgdon, a volunteer at the 2nd and 3rd District police stations.

“Kids are showing up with rotting teeth and active fevers and malnutrition and they’re not receiving care here,” said Hodgdon. “And then on top of that we’re now refusing them education and all of the things that come with that.”

In a statement Monday evening, Chicago Public Schools said that migrants arrived at Emmett Till with outdated enrollment forms not provided by Till staff.

“The Till principal proceeded to inquire about a meeting to organize the enrollment information and provide updated enrollment forms in Spanish,” the district said in a statement. “The principal collected everyone’s name, phone number and any email addresses and provided enrollment forms in Spanish.”

CPS had been preparing this summer for the throng of new English learner students, most of them migrant children, with about 1,000 of them enrolling prior to the start of school Monday. The district anticipates another 1,000 from temporary shelters and police stations to enroll throughout the beginning of the school year.

“The District was provided with information about children staying at police stations within the past few business days and is developing a plan to incorporate enrollment procedures for those families who are staying at police stations. We consider those families to be part of the estimated 1,000 students that we are in the process of enrolling,” the statement said. “We are working with urgency and are dedicated to enrolling as many families as quickly as we can. This includes deploying mobile units to local police stations and other temporary shelters this week to ensure all children are provided access to our services.”

But Hodgdon said the 3rd District has received no help or outreach from the city of Chicago to enroll children at police districts or to educate volunteers about providing educational services. Yesterday, volunteers took matters into their own hands and printed the enrollment packet for children like Hassly, Hodgdon said.

Just before lunchtime, Piña and her husband, Jonni Cespedes, lay on a cardboard box in the grass outside the 3rd District police station.

Cespedes, Hassly’s father, touched his daughter’s hair as he remembered the harrowing journey the family took from Venezuela to New Mexico, through the notorious jungle known as the Darién Gap. They fled their country to escape violence, he said, riding a dangerous train known as La Migra.

“It was a nightmare,” he said in Spanish.

Hassly used a purple crayon to fill in the lines of a coloring sheet with a princess.

“I like to draw,” she said in Spanish. “I want to be an artist.”

A socio-political and economic crisis in Venezuela has displaced more than 7 million people as refugees and migrants, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency. While most of them have resettled in Central America, more than 500,000 have made their way into the United States and make up many of the 13,000 migrants who have come to Chicago in the past year. The migrants began coming to Chicago last fall sent on buses by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott.

In response to the swelling new English learner population, CPS has increased funding for bilingual instruction by $15 million in its 2023-24 budget. The money is for additional staff members at schools that received new English learners after school began in 2022, a spokesperson told the Tribune last week.

CPS said in its statement Monday they prioritize Students in Temporary Living Situations. STLS students can “immediately enroll in school, even if he or she lacks health, immunization, or school records, proof of guardianship, proof of residency, or any other documentation normally required for school enrollment,” CPS said.

Cespedes said his daughter Hassly and 9-year-old son Hassler were excited Sunday night to go to school. They left for Emmett Till at 7:40 in the morning on Monday, but neither child was allowed to enroll.

“They didn’t have people who spoke Spanish, so they turned them away,” said Piña in Spanish.

Two high school students staying at the police station tried to attend Emil G. Hirsch Metropolitan High School, and though they weren’t turned away, they were given no language support, according to Zachary Goldstein, a volunteer at the 3rd District who lives in Woodlawn.

Goldstein said Hirsch staff told the two students there was a gym teacher and language arts teacher who spoke Spanish and could help them settle at the beginning of the day tomorrow.

“But for most of the day, they will be on their own, using Google Translate,” he said.

CPS acknowledged that the students attended Hirsch Monday, and said in a statement they were able to enroll with the support of CPS staff and the families’ translator.

“Hirsch has identified the students are in need of English Learner services and is working with the District’s Talent Office to ensure staff are at Hirsch to provide services to new students this week,” the district said in the statement.

At lunchtime, children and parents sleeping at the 3rd District walked through the humidity to the church, where volunteers wearing aprons that read “Spoonful of Hope” directed them in English.

Martin Temple volunteers asked Goldstein if he could stay and help translate. He’d already spent the morning walking with the families to school and handling their paperwork. He said he could spend a few minutes at the soup kitchen, but couldn’t stay all day.

A 55-year-old man named Mike Jackson stood in line. He said he had also experienced homelessness, and wondered why the city hadn’t stepped up to provide help for him and his community.

“I’ve been on the streets,” he said. “Nothing against them, but (the city) should have taken care of us first.”

Hodgdon, who specializes in trauma and children’s mental health, said no child should have to deal with the logistics of navigating a new school with no language support.

“And we’re talking about some of Chicago’s toughest schools on top of that,” she said.

Ald. William Hall, 6th, where the 3rd District police station is located, said if he’d known what happened to the children, he would have gone there immediately.

“I will reach out to as many people involved as possible and begin to work closely with CPS to make sure we’re not excluding anyone from the opportunity to learn,” he said. “This is the ‘ward of scholars.’”

Just after 3 p.m. at Emmett Till on Monday, children got out of school, wearing matching yellow polos and holding pizzas provided by the Chicago Police Department. Emmett Till staff declined to comment about what they were doing to support migrants.

Cars honked as children joyously reunited with their parents.


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