Dozens of new immigrants joining Chicago Public Schools as school year nears end

As many as 50 immigrant children staying temporarily at Piotrowski Park joined Zapata Academy and other grammar schools in South Lawndale, and about a dozen youths may enroll in Little Village Lawndale High School, the Sun-Times has learned.

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Emiliano Zapata Elementary Academy, 2728 S Kostner Ave., photographed in October 2016.

Ald. Michael Rodriguez (22nd) has supported enrolling migrant children at Zapata Academy and Little Village Lawndale High School.

Sun-Times Media

After spending months away from school, not playing hooky but traversing jungles and riding aboard trains, Yasmari Leon, 12, finally returned to class on Monday, one of several new students at a Little Village elementary school.

The native of Venezuela was one of the recent migrants bused to Chicago and now staying at a temporary shelter. But, epic trek or not, they will finish out the school year alongside other CPS students.

Her father, Jackson Leon, was clear on the significance of her enrollment.

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“I feel very happy,” said the 33-year-old. “Here she can study again, learn English and learn another way of life.”

The school, Zapata Academy near 27th Street and Kostner Avenue, is about a mile north of Piotrowski Park, where they have been staying for the last 10 days since 22nd Ward Ald. Michael Rodriguez turned the fieldhouse into a temporary shelter.

Rodriguez has supported their enrollment at schools in the Lower West Side neighborhood.

“Even if it’s just two weeks, it’s two weeks,” he told the Sun-Times at an event near the school last week. “Kids should be in school.”

Rodriguez said he didn’t know how many students would enroll, but he estimated that of the 200 immigrants at the fieldhouse, 40 to 50 kids would join Zapata as well as other grammar schools in the area, and up to a dozen students might soon join Little Village Lawndale High School.

“Despite the fact that this is a crisis, a man-made crisis, made by xenophobic, racist policies from Southern governors, we should also look at this as an opportunity to bring in new energy and the revitalized immigrant spirit to our community,” he said.

“This reinforces who we are. We’re welcoming, we’re migrants, and the people coming in become a part of our society. They become taxpayers, renters and eventually homeowners. They fill our classrooms. They do essential work. They are us,” Rodriguez said.

The welcome they have received is in sharp contrast to the pushback immigrants have faced in some parts of the city.

“As an immigrant community, we’re naturally positioned with the resources and the neighbors that are very welcoming to the migrants,” he said.

As much as the neighborhood has to offer immigrants, Rodriguez said their arrival could bode well for the future of the neighborhood.

“I hope they stay and become a fabric of our community, as Mexican immigrants did decades ago, and eastern European and Polish immigrants did a generation before them,” the alderperson said.

CPS did not answer questions about how many migrant children had enrolled at CPS schools or where, but Little Village is one several neighborhoods where CPS schools have enrolled recent migrants. Others include Pilsen and McKinley Park.

CPS said the move was in keeping with CPS’ “long history of welcoming new arrivals from around the world.”

“CPS aims to provide every student with a high-quality and holistic education which includes serving our diverse multicultural students,” the statement read. “We are well-equipped and committed to serving every new student, including those students who have arrived in recent months with their families.”

The statement added that students staying in temporary shelters can immediately enroll in CPS, “even if he or she lacks health, immunization or school records, proof of guardianship, proof of residency, or any other documentation normally required for school enrollment.”

Yasmari and the other new Zapata students will only be in classes a short while before the school year is done, but her father said it’s an improvement over her schooling in Venezuela.

“She wasn’t really going to school,” said Leon, a carpenter by trade. “The government doesn’t give the teachers enough money to teach, so it was about two hours per week, that’s it.”

It’s also a welcome return to a routine. Since leaving Venezuela in January, they’ve been robbed several times along the way and at an encampment on the Texas border feared for their lives because of the cartels.

“They’re not going to kill us here,” Leon said, he remembered thinking, “not after leaving home so long ago. We’ll try the river.”

If all goes well with their asylum appointment in June, Leon hopes they can potentially remain in the neighborhood, where there are many Spanish-speakers, the White Sox stadium isn’t far away and where it feels like there’s room to breathe.

“Look how clean it is and how green,” he said, pointing to grass in the park. “It’s a complete change.”

Michael Loria is a staff reporter at the Chicago Sun-Times via Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster the paper’s coverage of communities on the South Side and West Side.

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