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October 25, 2014

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Clark County schools ponder an Arizona exodus

Fleeing families might add English-language learners to district rolls

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Adam Lau / associated press

Dominic Chavez, 1, is shown with his mom at a rally last week in Los Angeles to protest Arizona’s immigration law. In a previous illegal-immigration crackdown in Arizona, elementary schools saw a drop in enrollment, leading educators to believe families with small children might leave again.

Arizona’s incendiary immigration law has Clark County education officials keeping a close eye on enrollment for the upcoming academic year because of the potential influx of students fleeing the Grand Canyon State.

The law would require Arizona police officers to verify the immigration status of anyone believed to be in the United States illegally. Immigrants would be required to carry documents verifying their legal status.

It’s too early to tell whether families with school-age children will leave Arizona, particularly because a federal judge last week suspended the more severe elements of the law hours before it was to take effect. But Rick Baldwin, demographics coordinator for the Clark County School District, said it’s a question many people are asking.

The district projects its fall enrollment to be 309,373, a decrease of 103 students from the official head count in September 2009.

Schools are being staffed at 97 percent of the projected enrollment, reducing the likelihood of layoffs if fewer students than expected show up. The district’s enrollment dropped by about a half-percent last year, the first decline in more than 25 years.

It might be difficult to quantify how many students the district could gain from Arizona this fall, and whether those families left as a result of the new law. The district doesn’t keep track of where students come from when they enroll for the first time, although the idea of doing so “has definitely crossed our minds in this office,” Baldwin said. “The problem is, that requires a lot more manpower, and we honestly don’t have too much lately.”

A large influx of English-language learners could be a mixed blessing for the district. It would help keep the total enrollment numbers up, which would mean more jobs for teachers. But the district doesn’t receive extra money to provide the services and programs such high-need students often require.

As of the 2009-10 academic year, Clark County’s student population was 41 percent Hispanic, and about 18 percent of the total enrollment was identified as English-language learners.

The district receives the same per-pupil amount from the state for every student (although extra money is provided for special education services). State and local education officials have long advocated for a “weighted” student formula, which would mean extra money for children who are English-language learners, or have other challenges, such as being homeless or coming from low-income households.

Craig Pletenik, communications manager of the Phoenix Union High School District, said so far registration numbers for the 2010-11 academic year are typical. The high school district is the state’s largest with more than 25,000 students at 16 campuses. Hispanics account for 78 percent of the student population, and 60 percent of the district’s families speak a language other than English at home.

“What we’re hearing is that people are waiting to see what happens, whether the court challenges (to the immigration law) hold up and how it would be enforced,” Pletenik said. “We’re a fairly transient population to begin with, and we lose and gain children on a fairly regular basis.”

Classes begin today, but the district won’t do its first official head count until about 12 days later, Pletenik said. That’s when there will be some indication of how many students didn’t return to school after the summer break.

A few years ago, Arizona passed a law requiring employers to verify that new employees were legal residents. The local elementary schools saw a drop in enrollment after that, but the high schools’ numbers remained steady, Pletenik said. Educators theorized that parents allowed older students to either stay with family or friends in the Phoenix area, but parents moved on with the younger children.

“The thing we’re emphasizing with our families is that school is a safe place to be,” Pletenik said. “We follow the federal law, which says everyone is entitled to a free education.”

That’s also the message from Phoenix Elementary School District No. 1, spokeswoman Sara Bresnahan said. Classes begin this week at its 15 campuses, which serve students in grades K-8. Parents are reminded that federal law protects students’ rights to attend public school regardless of immigration status.

“Our focus is on the importance of the children being in school every day,” Bresnahan said.

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