By Sarah Garland
Editor’s Note: This story is part of a series about how schools, teachers and students are coping with the immigration crisis.
PATCHOGUE, N.Y. — Wilda Rosario’s support groups for immigrant students at Patchogue-Medford High School usually start out with lots of laughter. That’s just how teenagers are, she says. But it doesn’t take too long for conversations to turn serious with this group of kids, most of them children seeking asylum from violence in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.
During an ice-breaker of light-hearted questions, the teens turn from a discussion of their favorite foods to the meals their grandmothers made back home, and how much they miss them. What they’d bring to a deserted island morphs into a conversation about what it would have been like to take an airplane to America, instead of having to hike through the desert.
From there, during each weekly meeting in a conference room a few doors down from the principal’s office in this sprawling high school of nearly 2,500 kids, the students dig deeper and deeper into the traumas that haunt them — nightmares about sinking into muddy rivers, or being lost in the pitch-black of the desert night. They talk, too, of the hopes that keep them going — getting into college, building a house for their parents back home.
“I say to them, it doesn’t matter where you came from, it’s where you’re going,” says Rosario, a bilingual social worker who joined the Patchogue-Medford school district two years ago.
Since 2016, Rosario has run half a dozen counseling groups of about eight to ten kids. Other kids have tracked her down to talk after hearing from friends that she’s a sympathetic listener. She’s one of the reasons immigrant students smile when asked about their school. They call it calm, peaceful and supportive. It’s a refuge.
That’s not how many outsiders paint Patchogue. When politicians talk about Suffolk County — a mix of tony beach towns and working class hamlets like Patchogue on Long Island’s eastern half — it’s often to highlight the violence. President Trump has twice visited Suffolk to call for a crackdown against immigrant gangs following teenage murders in Brentwood, a few towns over. New York’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, has stopped by the county to promise more state money to target the largest of the gangs, MS-13. And Patchogue itself is still haunted by the decade-old murder of an immigrant by several native-born teens.
But away from the political debates and television lights, educators in the Patchogue-Medford school district have been quietly cultivating a different image. Instead of viewing immigrant students as a burden on already overwhelmed schools — or a security threat — a coalition of teachers and administration officials is trying to shift the narrative. They are building a haven for the hundreds of young people who have moved here in the last decade to join relatives and escape home countries like Honduras and El Salvador, which have the highest murder rates in the world.
“We’re here to support, not scare and remove,” said Michael Hynes, superintendent of the Patchogue-Medford Union Free School District. “For us, we’re trying to take care of our most vulnerable. To make sure they get what they need and deserve.”
In Long Island, this sentiment is not a given. Its two counties, Nassau and Suffolk, have been on the front lines of the U.S. immigration debate for more than three decades, ever since immigrants began flocking to fill plentiful jobs in construction, landscaping and the restaurant industry. The area has been one of the largest receiving points for a wave of unaccompanied youth fleeing Central America’s spiraling gang violence. Parents worried about their children’s safety, and only able to afford the cost of one crossing, have sent children alone to live with uncles, aunts and cousins already established in the area. The cost of crossing into the U.S. illegally can amount to more than $6,000.
The resulting demographic changes have roiled these suburbs. Schools have often been at the center of fights over who belongs here and whether native residents have any duty to help or support immigrants. In response to the influx of children, some schools have been accused of blocking undocumented immigrants from registering, in violation of the law, or funneling them to law enforcement.
In contrast, Patchogue-Medford has spent the last four years revamping its programming for immigrant students. The recession forced the district to lay off 50 educators, but as its finances improved, the district prioritized bilingualism. Since 2014, it has added more than 70 employees, including 40 educators and counselors who speak Spanish, according to district officials.
Administration officials have also staffed each of the district’s schools with Spanish-speaking secretaries, so Hispanic parents would feel welcome. They hired a new director for language programs, Dalimar Rastello, a veteran bilingual educator who is herself Hispanic. They added resources in an existing dual-language program at the elementary school level, created a sheltered English learner program for newcomer students in the middle school, and overhauled high school offerings, placing native English speakers and English learners into more of the same classrooms, so they can learn from each other.
In some ways, Patchogue-Medford has had little choice: It now has more students learning English than students in special education, officials said, and nearly 40 percent of its students are Hispanic, according to New York State data. In other words, if these students don’t succeed, neither does the district.
But another reason has spurred Patchogue-Medford to embrace its immigrant students: In 2008, the town became a symbol of xenophobia and hatred, a characterization locals have tried hard to shake. That year, a pack of Patchogue-Medford High School students set out to hunt “beaners” and murdered Marcelo Lucero, a 37-year-old Ecuadorean immigrant. His death was one of a series of attacks on immigrants in the area, according to the journalist Mirta Ojito’s book on the killing.
“What this district is trying to do is exactly the opposite of that reputation,” said Rastello. “They’re putting their resources in the right place to show we’re not that. That’s not us.”
Luís is one of the students that Patchogue- Medford has made a priority. Last year, Rosario picked his name from a list of newcomers, and asked if he would like to join one of her support groups. Quiet and withdrawn, Luís had flown under the radar — neither a standout student nor a problem. He agreed to give the group a try and, after a few sessions, began opening up about a past that is both horrific and typical of Patchogue’s immigrant students.
Luís, who asked that his last name be withheld because he worries about his safety, speaks in a low murmur that forces listeners to lean in close. Next to one of his eyes is a dented scar. Another slices across his shoulder.
Other traumas are less visible.
Now 18, he first left home two years ago to escape the gangs near his town in Morazán, El Salvador. He said MS-13 had expanded to the area, recruiting boys as young as 13. He said he was often stopped on the way to school and forced to hand over money.
At 15, he was riding in a van with friends when a group of armed teenagers pulled them over. They shoved him to the ground, cutting him across the shoulder. As he lay face down in the mud, they shot several boys in his group, including two of his friends.
His parents decided he needed to leave, or he might be next. They sold their land to pay a guide to take him to the U.S. On his first attempt he only made it as far as Mexico before he was picked up. At the Mexican detention center, a boy demanded that he give up his dinner. He was hungry and didn’t want to share, so the boy cut him in the eye with a shiv made out of a toothbrush.
He used the rest of his family’s money on a second attempt. After a 26-hour ride standing in the back of a tractor-trailer, pressed up against dozens of other migrants, his group was kidnapped and taken to a house where he thought he saw bloody clothes hanging on the line and fresh graves dug in the yard. He turned over all his money to get away. Luís managed to cross the border to Texas, but was picked up by border agents almost immediately. He was sent to a youth shelter, where he waited for nearly a month to find out what would happen to him.
Luís’ uncle in Patchogue, a U.S. citizen, offered to sponsor him while he made a case for asylum, and he joined a growing number of immigrant students who arrived in Patchogue-Medford. In the 2013-14 school year, there were 125 new arrivals who were English learners, according to district officials. Four years later, there were 212. Many, like Luís, came without their parents; Suffolk County received more than 1,000 unaccompanied minors in the 2017 fiscal year, according to the Office of Refugee Resettlement.
Rebecca Sanin, president and CEO of the nonprofit Health and Welfare Council of Long Island, said the large numbers, and the level of trauma these students bring with them, overwhelmed many schools. “Whether they’re doing a great job already or not, they want to be doing a good job,” she said. “But they haven’t been given enough resources in their annual budgets to meet these new needs.”
The Patchogue-Medford schools were more prepared than most.
Hynes, the district superintendent, was hired in 2014, chosen in part for his “whole-child” approach to education. Not long after he started the job, a group of local women, the Madres Latinas Amigas, sent him an email. The women’s group, composed of moms from Ecuador, Mexico, Peru and countries in Central America, had come up with a list of suggestions for making the local schools friendlier to immigrant parents. The ideas stemmed from the group’s twice-monthly meetings at the Patchogue library, where they talked about parenting, navigating their new American home, and the schools.
Within a couple of months, Hynes met with the mothers and began implementing some of their ideas, including hiring more Spanish speakers.
Rastello, one of the first of the new staff hired, helped open a centralized office for newcomers and created a registration process that ensured new students and their families went through interviews and assessments to figure out which students were on grade level but lacked English, and which had missed years of schooling at home. The district also added students’ English levels to class rosters, a simple but incredibly helpful step, educators said. And they tried to identify families with other problems, such as hunger or homelessness, so they could connect them with an outside service agency the district had invited to share space in one of the middle schools.
The Madres noticed the difference. “[Rastello] made it so the schools are open. We can enter and express ourselves freely,” said María Cristina, 44, a mother of four who moved to Patchogue from Ecuador 23 years ago. “Now we can ask for help in Spanish. Before we couldn’t.”
The district is still trying to figure out how to help students cope with the emotional trauma many have suffered. Lori Cannetti, the assistant superintendent for instruction, said that, at a bare minimum, staff are trying to connect students with “one person they can trust.”
For Cesar Morales, that person was Stephanie Vogel. A veteran English-as-a-new language teacher, she also serves as one of the district’s two “teachers on assignment,” a new position dedicated solely to helping English learners settle in and succeed.
Morales, a short 19-year-old from Chiché, Guatemala, joined five brothers already in Patchogue in 2016. His teachers noticed something was wrong one day this fall when the normally cheerful 11th-grader seemed quiet and withdrawn. They called Vogel, who knows Cesar’s family well, to let her know.
He’d just learned his younger sister had died, from liver failure, during an hour-long journey to the hospital from his family’s tiny rural village. “They could tell I wasn’t okay,” said Cesar. “They asked how I was.”
Ricardo Morales, Cesar’s older brother, appreciates the care the school has provided his family, even five years after he graduated from Patchogue High. Teachers have pushed each brother to stick it out when they’ve considered dropping out. And Vogel, “she’s like our mom,” said Morales, who at 26 is one of the main breadwinners for the family. “She worries a lot about us. My brothers, everyone.”
Ricardo works at Outback Steakhouse as a cook and doesn’t expect he’ll go to college anytime soon, but Cesar wants to continue his education and become a saxophonist; he discovered the instrument at his church in Long Island. District officials said they’re trying to figure out how to build career pathways for students like him, who arrive at age 18, 19, 20, or even 21, so that they can “find hope” even if a diploma — or a career as a musician — is likely out of reach.
Hynes, a vocal opponent of using standardized testing for accountability, appears in the news often, but Patchogue officials haven’t trumpeted their efforts. One reason may be political: Patchogue-Medford is in a congressional district that voted for President Trump by a margin of 12 percent in the 2016 election, and this year reelected Republican Lee Zeldin for Congress, a reliable conservative on immigration.
And while there are some measures that suggest academic progress for the district’s immigrant students, including how quickly newcomer students are becoming proficient in English, “our graduation rates are still not where they need to be,” said Rastello. Patchogue-Medford’s four-year graduation rate for Hispanic students was 74 percent in 2017, compared to 93 percent for white students. (Though it’s up from 71 percent five years ago, before the district began making major changes to its offerings for newcomers.)
Students also said ethnic tensions rear up on occasion. Several newcomers said they’ve been called names in the cafeteria or hallways. Educators here said they’ve worked hard to mitigate conflicts, though, and are also quick to note they’ve never seen any sign of gangs here, despite the problems in neighboring towns and the concerns of politicians. (Violent crime on Long Island has actually plummeted in recent years, as the immigrant population has grown.)
So far this year, the district has received fewer immigrant students than in years past. But Rastello and Vogel are worried, not relieved. More than 12,000 unaccompanied immigrant children were in federal custody in September, up from 2,400 the year before. Patchogue’s educators imagined that dozens, perhaps hundreds, of children could be released into their care any day.
Still, Hynes is confident, “if they’re going to land somewhere, this is the best place that they could land.”
On a Monday this fall, Luís sat in Vogel’s cheerful office surrounded by posters covered in smiley faces and inspirational sayings. He had been watching the news: President Trump was warning that a caravan of immigrants from Honduras was hiding criminals, and Gov. Cuomo was back in Long Island to announce even more money to fight MS-13. “They need to understand that we all have dreams, and the countries where we live, there aren’t resources,” said Luís. “We want to overcome that.”
Thanks in part to encouragement from Rosario, his support-group leader, Luís has gained confidence that he can realize his dreams — if he sticks to his studies at Patchogue-Medford High. He comes straight home from school each day, and except for basketball games with his uncle, rarely ventures out on the weekends. As safe as the suburbs seem, he doesn’t want trouble. He’s also scrambling to catch up with his peers after the interruption of his education. He wants to become a lawyer, and help other immigrants like himself, but first he has to graduate.
“My counselor told me that I have to do what’s possible,” he said. Another thing she’s taught him: “The majority of Americans are good people.”
This story about Central American students was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.