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COVID-19 Coverage

Schools are using COVID relief dollars to support immigrant students' mental health

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Supporting the mental health needs of immigrant students has been a challenge for schools to address, especially since the start of the pandemic. COVID relief dollars made a lot of that possible. KQED's Julia McEvoy looked at one school in Oakland, Calif., to see what that support actually looks like.

JULIA MCEVOY, BYLINE: Yesabel Inga works at Bridges Academy at Melrose in East Oakland, where she is the only therapist for some 400 students, a quarter of them newcomers who have been in the United States for less than a year.

YESABEL INGA: And a lot of them that - I mean, when they first came in - only spoke Mam.

MCEVOY: Mam is a Mayan language spoken by some half a million people in Guatemala and Mexico.

INGA: They didn't speak Spanish or English. And so they were just kind of, like, lost, you know?

MCEVOY: Because Inga should only carry a caseload of 15 students who are clinically diagnosed, scores of kids who could have used help were not getting it, and the result was a lot of disruption. Community Schools Director Rosana Covarrubias saw it on the playground.

ROSANA COVARRUBIAS: There was a lot of cyberbullying, and so we were seeing it erupt here at school because of what was happening online.

MCEVOY: When Covarrubias tried to refer students out to other community agencies they partner with...

COVARRUBIAS: The waitlists are really long at different centers. And so, you know, oftentimes they just have to wait.

MCEVOY: For months. And those were the acute cases. So kids like Heymer Santiago Godinez were falling through the cracks.

HEYMER SANTIAGO GODINEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

MCEVOY: Heymer had arrived from Guatemala with her dad in first grade, screaming, kicking and crying when dropped off at school. She was scared to come to school because back in Guatemala, she was too young to go.

HEYMER: (Speaking Spanish).

MCEVOY: Teachers had to hold her down to calm her and get her to stay in classes. By fourth grade, Heymer says she had one friend. Therapist Inga says kids were confused.

INGA: Not really feeling like they could trust other people. Like, once they came here, there was no space to really talk about themselves and their culture, right?

MCEVOY: Kids like Heymer are the ones the extra pandemic dollars from the state and feds were supposed to help. In the third round of federal pandemic funding to schools, Oakland Unified got over $100 million. The district reported spending about 650,000 of that money, nearly half going toward mental health. At Bridges, staff used some of that money to hire a part-time therapist to help Inga start group sessions, which they hoped would reach more children.

INGA: In the beginning, everybody was really quiet and shy.

MCEVOY: In the group session, Inga asked Heymer and the other students to bring in something of themselves.

INGA: It was bring something that means something to you, that represents you. And I believe it was Heymer who actually said it.

HEYMER: Oh, because I talked to my friend. I said to her, to - can you go bring your corte in school? And she said, yes, of course.

MCEVOY: The day Heymer and the other girls wore their traditional skirts - called cortes - to school, Heymer's sister braided her hair. The girls were nervous, a little scared.

HEYMER: Because some people was looking at us and some people is thinking, why that girl wear some corte like that?

INGA: Listen, like, yeah, some other kids might look at you weird, but it's because they haven't been exposed to other cultures. And if they ask you or say something mean, it's like, you know, like, let me tell you about my culture. Let me tell you what this means.

MCEVOY: What took place at this school was not just about the group therapy sessions. Teachers wanted to make kids feel they belonged - not othered. Some teachers took Mam language lessons. Others began to center the Mam culture in their classroom lessons.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS: (Non-English language spoken).

MCEVOY: The joy Heymer felt in wearing her corte spread. More Mam-speaking students began wearing their traditional corte dress on Fridays, even the boys.

INGA: It was just, like, beautiful.

MCEVOY: At the fifth grade graduation, it was Heymer who greeted parents, welcoming them in Mam. Then, for the first time, all students who presented recited poems in English, Spanish and Mam. Everyone used all three languages. This year, Heymer is walking the eight blocks to a new middle school in East Oakland. She likes to sing songs from her church as she goes.

HEYMER: (Singing in non-English language).

MCEVOY: She says she is worried about going to a new school, but she's more confident now of who she is and what she can do.

HEYMER: (Speaking Spanish).

MCEVOY: Heymer says she doesn't care what people say about her. She only wants to learn. And if she has to, she says she'll call on her old teachers at Bridges Academy for help.

For NPR News, I'm Julia McEvoy in Oakland. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
Julia McEvoy