BROWNSVILLE, Tex., March 18—Until two months ago, 9-year-old Julio had never held a pencil, used scissors or sat at a desk. He still has trouble writing, cutting paper and speaking English.
Julio is one of 750 children of illegal aliens who are enrolled in local schools for the first time this year under a Federal judge’s order. Some, like Julio, had never been to school, even in Mexico.
Before his family moved to this border city six months ago, he worked on a ranch doing odd jobs. The nearest school was more than 10 miles away in Matamoros, by often impassable roads.
Julio and 26 other youngsters are in a special program for children who lack basic skills in either English or Spanish.
Problems Encountered Early
”These youngsters at first went into regular bilingual classrooms, but problems emerged very clearly when teachers found the children had no skills,” said Cesar Cisneros, director of elementary education for the Brownsville Independent School District. ”You can imagine the frustrations of teachers trying to conduct a regular class when there’s one who can’t hold a pencil.”
Texas law prohibited free schooling for illegal aliens before a Federal judge struck down the statute as unconstitutional in July 1980.
The Brownsville district set up special classes in January at three elementary schools and it plans to start the program in two more schools when teachers are available. Most illegal aliens entering school for the first time are in regular, bilingual classrooms.
At the Cromack Elementary School, Blanca Betancourt teaches eight pupils, from age 9 to 13, in the special program. Her classroom is reminiscent of a one-room schoolhouse. A girl who normally would be in the second grade sits in front of a boy whose peers are in the seventh.
Difficulties With Age Range
”It’s unbelievable what can happen when a child doesn’t get an education,” she said. ”I never realized there were children with no schooling at all.”
The wide age range causes difficulties; some children are sophisticated beyond their years, like one 13-year-old boy who worked as a street vendor after his parents died. He enrolled in local schools after moving in with an aunt and uncle here.
All the children are from families with incomes below the Federal poverty line. Their only experience with English comes in class, unless they follow the teacher’s orders to watch American television programs.
English for Instruction
Miss Betancourt uses English as often as possible for instruction but frequently switches to Spanish to make herself understood. However, these children with little or no schooling often lack even a basic Spanish vocabulary.
”I must teach them the Spanish word so they will know what I mean when I tell them the word in English,” the teacher said. Instructional materials include first grade-level flash cards and a lot of improvisation. The setting is similar at Egly Elementary School, not far away.
Betty Frausto has seven students, from age 10 to 13, including two who had never been to school.
Three Years Without School
One of Mrs. Frausto’s students, Oscar, lived in Brownsville for three years without going to school. He had been in a Matamoros school before moving to the United States.
”I would go with a friend all the time and try to find a job,” the 13-year-old said in Spanish. ”But they would tell me I was too young and needed an education.” Unable to enroll here because of the state law, he stayed at home.