Prince George's County schools are offering immigrant students English language courses, mental health support and guidance counseling.

Prince George's County schools are offering immigrant students English language courses, mental health support and guidance counseling.

In 2019, authorities at the U.S.-Mexico border detained nearly 75,000 unaccompanied minors. Most of these children faced a long and perilous journey on their way to the United States. Upon arrival to the border, authorities hold them in temporary detention centers before releasing them to adult relatives or guardians across the United States.

Ultimately, many of those children end up in our region, particularly in Prince George’s County. In fact, Prince George’s County receives the fourth highest number of unaccompanied children in the nation.

What does this mean for its school district? We’ll discuss the efforts counselors, social workers, school administrators and teachers have been pioneering countywide to ensure immigrant students adapt to their new home and overcome the barriers they face upon arrival.

Produced by Inés Rénique


  • Kavitha Cardoza Special Correspondent, WAMU; @kavithacardoza
  • Dr. Karen Woodson Former Principal, Mary Harris Mother Jones Elementary School; Founder and CEO, Leading for School Improvement; @kcwoodson101


  • 12:32:18

    KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back. Last year, U.S. authorities detained more than 76,000 unaccompanied minors at the southern border. And after a long and perilous journey, many of those children end up in our region, sponsored by local family members. Most of them do not speak English, and many are escaping trauma in their home countries. How are schools ensuring these students are supported and can excel?

  • 12:32:42

    KOJO NNAMDIWe'd love to have you join this conversation by calling 800-433-8850, because we'll be focusing on Prince George's County. Do you live in Prince George's County? What are your thoughts on the county school system, especially in how it deals with unaccompanied minors? 800-433-8850. Joining us now is Kavitha Cardoza. She's a special correspondent for WAMU, who I remember picking up on a corner on Connecticut Avenue on a snowy day like today many years ago when she was waving to get a ride. (laugh)

  • 12:33:14

    KAVITHA CARDOZA(laugh) It was a little worse than today, but, yes, I'll never forget that, Kojo.

  • 12:33:20

    NNAMDII'm glad you remembered. You still owe me. (laugh) You've spent more than a year reporting on undocumented students in our region. And just this week, you launched a five-part series here on WAMU. Tell us more about the series and why you chose to focus specifically on Prince George's County.

  • 12:33:38

    CARDOZAI was shocked, Kojo, when I heard that Prince George's County took in the fourth-highest number of unaccompanied minors. I just had no idea. And so, when I started digging some more, I found that the previous year, they were the third-highest. And so, I wanted to do some more reporting, but, of course, reporting on undocumented people, let alone children, is really challenging. Because I don't speak Spanish, it's really hard to get in touch. You have to spend a lot of time building trust.

  • 12:34:16

    CARDOZABut as I was reporting, I found that Prince George's County schools were doing a lot to help these children. They had created a new newcomer program to help them learn English. They had hired counselors and social workers, and they were very intentionally being welcoming.

  • 12:34:35

    NNAMDICan you give us a little background, briefly? How is that these kids go from being detained at the southern U.S. border to sitting in a classroom in Prince George's County?

  • 12:34:47

    CARDOZAIt's kind of complicated, but basically, when they reach the border and they're detained or they ask for asylum, they're put in the detention centers for a while. It's supposed to be a few weeks. It can take longer. And then it's really several agencies are working together to kind of get these children placed with either family members or sponsors across the country. Prince George's county has a very large community from Central America already settled here. So, it makes sense that they have relatives or parents already in this region.

  • 12:35:26

    NNAMDIWhy do schools, Kavitha, play such a critical role in helping immigrant children to adapt?

  • 12:35:33

    CARDOZABecause, often, they are the first place, Kojo, that many of these children said they were shown any kindness. I always think of, you know, educators as kind of first-responders. They are the ones helping these children deal with a new language, new culture, new weather, new rules, just new everything.

  • 12:36:00

    NNAMDILet's talk with one of those educators. Dr. Karen Woodson is the former principal of Mary Harris Mother Jones Elementary School in Prince George's County. She is now the founder and CEO of Leading for School Improvement, which advises schools on English language learner programs. Dr. Woodson, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:36:18

    DR. KAREN WOODSONThank you. Thank you for having me.

  • 12:36:20

    NNAMDIYou were an elementary school principal in Prince George's County. What did you see happening there?

  • 12:36:27

    WOODSONWell, what we saw was an increasing proportion of our ESAL students. We recognized that they were newcomers. And we saw a 300 percent increase in three years. We knew that newcomers were English learners who had very specific needs that we needed to address.

  • 12:36:52

    NNAMDIYou oversaw the development of programs for newly arrived immigrant students, a number which grew significantly over the past few years. These newcomers now make up 16 percent of the student body. How did you address the needs of those students?

  • 12:37:10

    WOODSONWe began to recognize that our newcomers needed specific support, particularly around instruction, around our ability to engage their parents and their families and around counseling. And we took those three areas and began to work with our team, our school-based teams to develop and intensify our approach to meeting the full accompaniment of their needs.

  • 12:37:42

    WOODSONSo, for example, around instruction we were able to put in place newcomer programs, in particular, with our teachers leading kindergarten newcomer programs that they custom designed for our particular context. We were also able to tune in to the counseling needs of our students. I knew that I needed to find, you know, a bilingual counselor who had experience in dealing with the trauma that many of our newcomers brought into the schoolhouse.

  • 12:38:16

    WOODSONAnd then we also accelerated our ability to connect families and students with county resources that could help address the needs that they had, medical resources, addressing food insecurity issues, being able to connect them to counseling supports in the community. This three ways of looking at the needs, looking at the instructional component, the whole parent-family engagement component and the counseling component proved to be something that helped the school really intensify the support, to meet their needs.

  • 12:38:58

    NNAMDIWe'd love to have you join the conversation. Give us a call at 800-433-8850. How well does your school district handle English language learners? Is English your second language? How did your school support you? 800-433-8850. You can also send us a tweet @kojoshow. Dr. Woodson, most of these children are coming from Central America. Does the school system -- does it matter to the school system whether their status is undocumented or not?

  • 12:39:26

    WOODSONWell, as a school system, it is, of course -- the answer would be no, because it's illegal to inquire of the student's immigration status. And so, for us, you'll hear me use the term newcomer or newly arrived. So, we would track the numbers of students who were arriving to us from the northern triangle, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras. We saw the numbers of students from those countries really increasing at a rapid pace over the past three years. And that is the lens that we use to identify who our newcomers were.

  • 12:40:04

    WOODSONWe also wanted to make sure that we adhered to kind of like the state definition for what a newcomer is, which is essentially newly arrived to the United States within the past year. So, using those criteria, we were able to see the numbers of our students who were, again, newly arrived from these three countries in the northern triangle. It allowed us to get a good, solid count.

  • 12:40:33

    WOODSONCan I guarantee that every single student is undocumented? Of course not, because that is something that we do not ask, as it has a chilling effect on enrollment. But, clearly, we could see the numbers of students coming in from those three countries and the evidence of trauma that was so pervasive in the student population. And so, you know, meeting with key members of my staff as a principal and being able to engage in weekly meetings with key members of my staff really enabled us to put in place support for our newcomers.

  • 12:41:13

    NNAMDIWell, juggling two or more cultures some people might find difficult. How do you help students find the balance between adapting to the U.S. while also honoring their home culture and language?

  • 12:41:27

    WOODSONAbsolutely. And so, that is one of the key tenants of being able to support newcomers is to make sure that we value their homes, we value their culture, we value their languages. We learned right away, for example, that a number of our students were not Spanish speakers -- as one might anticipate -- but, in fact, were speaking more indigenous languages like Mam and Ki'che'. And so, it did challenge us to find language resources in those languages that we can pull on for interpretation support, for reaching out to those families in those new languages that are not Spanish.

  • 12:42:09

    WOODSONWe also were very adept at posting our, you know, "Bilingual is Your Superpower" signs throughout the building. Being able to provide what we would call sheltered support, small groups of newcomer students meeting with a caring and well trained ESAL teacher and bilingual counselor to help ease their transition into schooling in the United States. But I would say, most of all, we showed them love, we showed them true caring, and we mitigated as many values as we could that stand in the way of the children being able to engage academically.

  • 12:42:52

    WOODSONAnd so, for example, a barrier could be food insecurity. A barrier could be, hey, I need to get in and get my immunizations, so I can come to school. A barrier could be access to medical care, access to glasses. So, we became very adept at mitigating these barriers so that our students can actually engage in the instruction that we plan for them.

  • 12:43:17

    NNAMDIAnd one of the things you demonstrated personally, learning a second language may not be that difficult. You learned Spanish yourself. You speak it fluently, and that surprises some students, right? How have you turned that into a learning lesson?

  • 12:43:33

    WOODSONAbsolutely. Yes, I am fluent in Spanish, and I used it daily to communicate with my students and to show them that, yes, I may be fluent, but guess what? This is what you're going to look like in a very few years from now. In fact, your English is going to be way better than my Spanish because you are learning the English of science, the English of social studies, the English of math. You're learning the academic English of language arts. You're getting multiple proficiencies in English.

  • 12:44:10

    WOODSONI never did that with my Spanish, and so I would always encourage the students, don't be afraid. And I would always say, you know, as a fluent speaker of another language, I never fear making a mistake. Mistakes are good. Make the mistakes. It's all part of the learning process.

  • 12:44:29

    NNAMDIWe're talking about how Prince George's County is adapting to a growing number of unaccompanied children. We're talking with Dr. Karen Woodson, the former principal of Mary Harris Mother Jones Elementary School. She is now founder and CEO of Leading for School Improvement, which advises schools on English language learner programs. Dr. Woodson, in the meantime, what can trauma look like in kids at school? What did your school do to help students cope with that trauma?

  • 12:44:56

    WOODSONTrauma can manifest itself in a number of ways. You could see students crying, seemingly for no reason. You may see outbursts in the students, from a behavioral point of view. You see some rage, on occasion. You can see students who are, you know, perhaps under a table or afraid to come out, afraid to engage. You can see students who, you know, may exhibit, you know, inappropriate behaviors, in terms of interacting with their peers. So, it manifests itself in a range of ways that we, as a school community, have to be attune to and very agile in terms of being able to respond to support the students.

  • 12:45:57

    NNAMDIKaren Woodson, how have the teachers and staff responded to all of this?

  • 12:46:04

    WOODSONOh, my gosh. The teachers and staff absolutely have been amazing, very welcoming to the students. It is the teachers and the staff that make it happen for our children. And so, for example, as a leader, I've got to make sure that I put key structures in place in order to empower the staff to do this work. What is a key structure that I use, for example?

  • 12:46:34

    WOODSONI met with my parent engagement team. That whole team consisted of a parent engagement assistant, a community resource coordinator, counselors, including the ESAL counselors, the assistant principal over counseling and the school nurse. We would meet as a team every week for one-and-a-half hours to identify specific actions needed to respond to our newcomer population. And to all students, of course, but particularly our newcomer population.

  • 12:47:07

    WOODSONAnd making the commitment, as a school leader, to meet on a weekly basis with this team was transformative. It allowed us to sharpen our vision around what intensified supports mean for newcomer students. It allowed me, as the leader, to link budget to support that vision, which is huge. And it allowed us, as a team and me as the leader, to really support, identifying and implementing key actions that would allow us to really provide a full program of newcomer supports for this population.

  • 12:47:47

    NNAMDIWell, Dr. Woodson, transformative, yes, but also probably tiring. How did your teachers deal with the fact that there was so much more to do and yet, somehow, maintain the positive attitudes they had?

  • 12:48:02

    WOODSONAnd so, yes, it can be a little tiring, and we supported each other. We would come together and wholly committed ourselves to deep professional learning around what we could do for children. Any small win that we experienced with a newcomer student was, indeed, energizing and helped us to really come together and overcome the challenges in serving the population. And so, yes, it can be a bit tiring, but you move that out of the way quickly as you see the students responding and you're beginning to see results and you're beginning to see the students learning English and being able to fully engage in the schoolhouse. These things were definitely energizing and helped to sustain us.

  • 12:48:56

    WOODSONAnd, again, as principal, my ability to be directly involved and to commit to the time needed to speak with the team that I mentioned is absolutely critical. This is not something that a principal of a high EL English learning impact school would just delegate to someone. No, no, no, you're that leader in charge. You really need to have a seat at the table, so you can gain perspective. I believe that is the singular, most important leadership move that I made as principal, was my ability to listen and my ability to listen to the right people.

  • 12:49:37

    NNAMDIKavitha Cardoza is back with us. Kavitha, a number of older students have to manage not just school, but also work. Their families rely on them to send money back home. Tell us about that.

  • 12:49:47

    CARDOZAI was shocked, Kojo, by they finish a full day of school, and then from about 3:30 to 1:00 in the morning, they are working. And they work in what one social worker called the most obvious crappy jobs there are. And so, it's really physically exhausting. And then they have to do homework, and then they come to school. And she said that's where the temptation hits, where, you know, you can't sustain two fulltime jobs, as it were, for a long time. And the money usually runs out, because that is the difference between whether their family can eat or not.

  • 12:50:24

    NNAMDIAnd, among the younger students, one of the students you spoke with is named Ana, a little girl who is learning English. Tell us about Ana.

  • 12:50:33

    CARDOZAAna, she says, is a beautiful little seven-year-old kindergartener. And when I first met her, she was new to the newcomer class and she would just say, "Ana can't speak." Anytime I asked her in English, she was very clear. But then I went back just two months later, and she had come so far and was just so much more confident. I think we're going to listen to a little bit of tape with Ana.

  • 12:51:00

    NNAMDIAs a matter of fact, let's listen to a bit of your conversation that you had with Ana. Here it is.

  • 12:51:05

    ANAI practice on my mom phone.

  • 12:51:07

    CARDOZAOh, you practice on your mom's phone.

  • 12:51:09


  • 12:51:10


  • 12:51:11

    ANAAnd Google. If we would go somewhere and my mom said, how much, and I say, it's $3 or $4.

  • 12:51:20

    CARDOZAAnd how does your mother feel when you help her?

  • 12:51:23

    ANAGood. She feel good. She said, I love you.

  • 12:51:27

    NNAMDIAnd who doesn't like to hear I love you, (laugh) especially from a parent. Kavitha, as part of this series, you also talk to experts about why it's so important for kids to socialize when learning a new language. How does that play out in schools, and what kind of challenge do schools face when kids self-segregate by language?

  • 12:51:46

    CARDOZAWell, kids self-segregating, it's the way, you know, we are set up with -- a lot of schools just kind of segregated by means and income, and also by language. I spoke to researchers from UCLA, and they said that a child having just one English-speaking friend can make such a huge difference in their ability to learn English in their grade, because oftentimes, the kids can talk to each other. And they don't have that in schools that are, you know, Spanish-dominant or other language-dominant speakers. We also saw that that is a huge challenge for students, to learn English.

  • 12:52:35

    NNAMDIKavitha, all kids are dealing with no seeing friends and teachers in person right now. What challenges are these kids facing, in particular?

  • 12:52:45

    CARDOZAWell, one, they're not seeing their friends, if they have friends who speak English. They are not hearing, you know, teachers speak in the hallway and at the bus stop. There's all of that extra kind of exposure that they're missing out on. And also remember, Kojo, if they go to schools where most of the kids speak a certain language and not English, then they often live in apartment buildings or areas where the dominant language is not English. So, they're missing out on all of that.

  • 12:53:16

    CARDOZAAnd then, of course, there's all the technology, which, you know, after my call dropped out, I can absolutely relate to that. (laugh) It's just harder to build relationships online. You know, the District has been teaching all the classroom teachers to use especially hands-on learning and those kinds of things. It's really hard to do over Zoom.

  • 12:53:39

    NNAMDIWell, John in Rosslyn, Virginia would like to help. John, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:53:44

    JOHNHello. I'm interested in what you're doing in Prince George's. I actually lived in Prince George's when my kids were very young. And I love the place, but what I am particularly interested in is language, because I'm studying language. I'm retired myself and just trying to keep myself sharp. So, I'm studying Spanish, actually. And I study online. I use...

  • 12:54:17

    NNAMDI(overlapping) We don't have a lot of time left, John. Could you get to your question?

  • 12:54:20

    JOHN(unintelligible) is a great tool and I would like to help by...

  • 12:54:23

    NNAMDI(overlapping) Any suggestions, Dr. Woodson , for John?

  • 12:54:29

    WOODSONYou know, the best option for John, you need to be engaging regularly with a Spanish speaker. That would be the best. I also would want you to tune into news on Univision or any of the Spanish-language stations. Tune in to that news every single day. Listen every single day. That's going to train your ear, but you also need to find a Spanish speaker with whom you can have meaningful conversations, even if it's over phone. It's better over Zoom, because you can see the facial queues and, you know, that will help with your understanding. But you definitely want to practice authentic Spanish and listen to that news every day. Train your ear and train your tongue. That would be the best.

  • 12:55:13

    NNAMDIKavitha, in the 30 seconds or so we have left, part five of your series airs tomorrow on Morning Edition. What can we expect to hear?

  • 12:55:21

    CARDOZAIt's about family reunification, Kojo. Oftentimes, when these children come and they're reunited with their parents, they think there's going to be a fairytale ending, you know, both parents and child. And what educators often see is that it doesn't turn out like that. The child is resentful. They feel they were abandoned. And the parent feels that the child is ungrateful and that they're not acknowledging all their sacrifices.

  • 12:55:49

    NNAMDIKavitha Cardoza, thank you so much for joining us.

  • 12:55:51

    CARDOZAMy pleasure, Kojo.

  • 12:55:53

    NNAMDIDr. Karen Woodson, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:55:55

    WOODSONMy pleasure. Thank you.

  • 12:55:57

    NNAMDIThis segment on unaccompanied minors in Prince George's County was produced by Ines Renique. And our conversation with Reverend William Lamar was produced by Richard Cunningham. Coming up Friday on The Politics Hour, what bills did the D.C. council pass before the end of the legislative session, and what was left on the table? We'll get a year-end wrap-up from Councilmember Charles Allen.

  • 12:56:16

    NNAMDIPlus, Montgomery County Councilmember Will Jawando talks about the county's latest coronavirus restrictions and his efforts to prevent rent gouging. That all starts tomorrow, at noon. Until then, thank you for listening and stay safe. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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