Last week, on the first day of a new Alabama law requiring presentation of birth certificates in order to enroll in school, more than 2,400 Hispanic students were absent from the state's classrooms. Educators are attempting to reach out to families to convince them that it's OK to send their children to school.
The new regulations should have been of no concern to parents of students who had already enrolled for the school year that began in August. Federal law states that no student would be denied an education because of their immigration status. The Alabama State Department of Education has stressed that there will be no repercussions for not producing a birth certificate; that it's use is to determine how much money the state is spending to educate undocumented students. But because of fears about the law's implications, hundreds of students missed school.
School officials are calling and visiting Hispanic families to reassure them that they shouldn't fear arrest or deportation if their children come to school. After 231 Hispanic students missed school last Thursday, Montgomery Public Schools Superintendent Barbara Thompson tells Governing that teachers who instruct English-language learners began making phone calls to families with absent students.
About half of those who missed the first day of the new policy have returned, Thompson says, but more than 100 have not. Statewide, the number of absent Hispanic students dropped from 2,448 last Thursday to 1,357 on Wednesday, according to Malissa Valdes, a spokeswoman with the state Department of Education.
To encourage school attendance, Thompson says her district will coordinate with Hispanic churches throughout the county, as word of mouth is the most effective means of spreading the message, and some officials will go door to door to ensure parents understand their families are not at risk.
Convincing families of that fact is not always easy, though, Thompson says. School officials have encountered families in which the parents have stopped going to work or the grocery store because "they're concerned if they come out, they're going to be picked up in their cars and arrested," she says. Thompson has also heard reports of students who didn't want to come to school because they were afraid their parents would be gone when they came home. That lingering anxiety has made it more difficult to communicate that the new law is generally benign, she says.
"In Hispanic communities, word travels fastest through word of mouth, particularly through people they trust," Thompson says. "We're not going to keep any children out of school -- that's the message we want to give them."
Valdes tells Governing state officials are utilizing social media and press releases to let families know that they have nothing to worry about. On Tuesday, interim superintendent Larry Craven released a statement to remind concerned residents that they would face no legal consequences for failing to produce a legitimate birth certificate. The department also relayed this information on its social media pages by linking to the statement in English and Spanish.
The absences have raised concerns about school funding. Contributions to schools from local, state and federal governments are based on the number of enrolled students. In Alabama, schools receive $8,825 per pupil annually. So, Thompson estimates, if those 100-plus students never reenter the system, the Montgomery school district could lose over $800,000. When each teacher costs roughly $65,000 per year, Thompson says that lost funding may mean a dozen or so teachers lose their jobs.
Valdes says that school districts shouldn't be concerned about the upcoming year because funding formulas have already been established. But she recognizes in the coming years, schools could lose some funding based on declining enrollment. For her part, Thompson believes state lawmakers might not have considered these consequences when they approved the law. Calls to Gov. Robert Bentley's office regarding the law's impact on school systems were not returned.
Overcoming this initial reaction to the law is going to be a struggle, says Thompson. "Our parents are fearful of what's going to happen to them outside of the school. The schools have been made that pivotal point where it appears that information might be collected that can be used against them," she says. "It puts us in a bad situation. We're trying desperately to build trust with these families. I think it's going to be hard for us to get some of these families back because the trust factor is huge."