CHELSEA — For most of the state, the fuss about unaccompanied minors blew over like a mid-summer storm.
As you’ll recall, after the governor offered to host short-term, federally funded shelters for immigrant children, xenophobic grandstanders had conniptions. Then the federal government decided the shelters were not needed after all, and people moved on.
But in Chelsea, the crisis wrought by the legions of desperate children fleeing Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador is as immediate as ever. And the way this city is handling it should make us all proud.
No matter how the national debate over immigration policy played out, hundreds of unaccompanied minors were always going to end up in this town beneath the Tobin because that is where they had relatives waiting for them.
They’ve been showing up here for a few years now, swelling classes for English-language learners. Schools are not allowed to ask about students’ immigration status, but there are clear indications that much of this year’s 550-student increase in Chelsea’s 6,100-pupil system consists of children who fled here without their parents.
“We welcome and we educate,” Superintendent Mary Bourque said. “We do not get into the political fray.” Bourque, who grew up here, said embracing the kids wasn’t a choice: “This is the character of our community.”
At the Hooks Elementary School, the first- and second-grade English Immersion classroom begins with six or seven kids in a typical year. This year, there are 32 students. They sat on the rug on a recent morning as their teacher read a book. A couple of assistants kept the kids in line, gently turning them to the front of the room.
Some have never been in school before.
“We are best friends,” read the animated teacher, gesturing to convey the words’ meanings. “Amigos.”
At the Sokolowski Elementary School, third- and fourth-grade English immersion students watched their teacher read a book about school’s first day. Usually, this class begins with eight or 10 students. This year, there are 29. Principal Jeff Bryson expects their ranks to swell to 50 by year’s end. Among them was a bright-eyed 9-year-old who made a dangerous journey from El Salvador with smugglers to join her mother here earlier this summer. She hung on her teacher’s every word.
“The kids come in with a host of problems, but they are some of our most eager students,” Bryson said. “They’re craving it.”
The openness with which Chelsea receives these children starts at the top.
“We have a lot of responsibility here,” said City Manager Jay Ash. “We have helped destabilize these Central American countries. You reap what you sow. If our kids are in trouble, my kids, our kids, anyone’s kids, we all have a responsibility to look after them.”
It’s a stand other leaders aren’t big enough to take. Lynn, 7 miles away, has seen its own influx of unaccompanied minors. But instead of rolling up their sleeves and dealing with it, city officials have engaged in fear-mongering, raising the specter of dangerous adults posing as ninth-graders, making sure new arrivals know they are unwelcome. The in-over-her-head Mayor Judy Flanagan Kennedy has been using the crisis to bask in the national conservative spotlight. It is a shameful sight. While Chelsea’s leaders are dealing with the crisis in a way that unites their city, Kennedy and her underlings seem determined to divide Lynn.
The challenges in both cities are real. Some of these kids have had traumatic experiences that have left them with social and emotional problems: They act out, or withdraw. In addition to knowing no English, they’re in desperate need of remedial help.
Bourque needs more social workers. She needs a longer day to make up learning deficits. She worries that the state will penalize Chelsea if test results don’t reflect the huge accomplishments in her classrooms. She needs more state money to educate these kids, but the state can’t adjust funding till next year — and even then, it won’t keep pace with enrollments, which she expects will jump again.
State officials know there is a problem here. They’re looking into grants that might send desperately needed funding to Chelsea and the other districts that are educating these kids. They must find a way.
In the meantime, Chelsea will struggle, with arms wide open.