There was no warning.
"To be forthright, we didn't really realize we had this bubbling up," said Mason City Schools Superintendent Gail Kist-Kline.
She was sitting in her office on the second floor of Mason's administrative building, explaining a recent spike in
It's a sensitive situation, she said.
This school year, Mason enrolled 135 new
The new Arabic speakers are spread out among grades and schools. Primarily, they hail from
That's where it gets tricky.
The students and their families are likely on B-1/B-2 visitor visas, which means, according to U.S. law, they are prohibited from enrolling in school. However, a conflicting law prohibits school districts from asking students about their citizenship status.
The contradiction leaves school districts like Mason in a tough spot, forcing them to navigate America's byzantine immigration laws while also absorbing the considerable cost of educating the new students.
Kist-Kline asked the district's attorney what to do, and he told her to enroll the students, even if they are violating their visas. She got a second opinion — and then a third — and all three lawyers came to the same conclusion:
She called the
Her fear is something will go awry, and Mason will be on the hook for serving students who are not supposed to be in school.
"That's what keeps me up at night," she said. "What if we do something wrong?"
An 'expensive endeavor'
It's called Destination Excellence. And, according to a 16-page spread in the Children's Hospital employee publication "360", it's a program aimed at recruiting out-of-area patients to the Queen City. Benefits are threefold: One, the patients get treatment they might not get elsewhere; two, a wider range of patients helps Children's recruit top talent for research and practice; and three, it's an additional revenue stream.
A hospital spokesman declined to say how much money the program makes. But in a letter for "360", senior vice president of infrastructure and operations Bill Kent wrote that Destination Excellence is "vital" to the organization's financial health. International patients are a relatively small portion of Children's overall base — 0.2% in fiscal year 2014 — but it's an important, diversified revenue stream.
"Personally, I'm excited about where Destination Excellence is going to take us," Kent wrote. "We're moving care for patients from outside our 25-county service area to the next level. I firmly believe that we and the global community are going to be stronger for our efforts."
But for Mason, the money spins the other way. The district had to hire more ESL tutors, translators and one-on-one aides this year for students with severe medical needs. Mason has enrolled 57 students affiliated with Destination Excellence, according to numbers provided by the district. Of those, 18 are patients at Children's, and 39 are siblings of patients.
The families are going through a traumatic time — what could be worse than a sick child? — but one side effect is school is not the No. 1 priority. For many of the Destination Excellence children, they're in and out of class, Kist-Kline said — here for a week, disappearing the next.
Destination Excellence will cost Mason schools $522,000 this year, Kist-Kline said. She met twice with hospital officials — meetings initiated by her, she said. She asked for more information, and she asked for money.
In an emailed response to questions from The Enquirer, hospital spokesman Terry Loftus wrote that Children's will help Mason coordinate health care needs for international patients enrolled in school, "but we will not be able to provide financial support to the school district for the education of these students or their siblings."
For Mason, that's a tough bill to swallow — "significant," Kist-Kline said, to the district's $100 million budget.
"This is an expensive endeavor, and we have really been trying to watch our finances," she said. "As long as (the hospital is) recruiting families from other places, we would certainly expect this to continue."
Specific numbers aren't clear, but Walsh said CPS had "several dozen" students from the hospital's Destination Excellence program.
"In several cases," she said, "shortly after the need for supports was identified and the services were put in place, the students would move back with their families to their native countries."
Just before spring break that year, CPS sent home a letter. Walsh couldn't find a copy, but essentially, she said, it told international visiting students they were not eligible for full-fledged academic services.
Very quickly, though, the district changed its mind.
"It's just the wrong thing to do, to exclude these students," Walsh said. "It was never acted on."
CPS started meeting with Children's, and they came up with a solution: a special program housed in open space at CPS' Rockdale Academy and
Children's paid for the program, Walsh said — a combined $689,000 for this year and last. It was less structured than traditional school — less rigorous, perhaps — but it allowed the students and their parents to enroll in an educational program without violating their visa conditions, and it took any financial onus off CPS.
It was a pilot program, though, according to the hospital. It's already shut down at Hughes. And at Rockdale, it's scaled back, with plans to end after this year.
At CPS, the need just isn't there anymore, Walsh said.
Kist-Kline thinks she knows why.
"The families moved north to Mason," she said.
Up to the challenge?
In a brightly colored classroom at Mason Early Childhood Center, teacher Michelle Hastings gathers her kindergarten students on a rug. They take turns reading aloud, using their pointer fingers to trace the words. Hastings has 25 students in her class, several of whom hail from Arabic-speaking nations. It's a noticeable difference from years past, said the 15-year teaching veteran.
Some of the international children speak English fluently; some speak a little; some speak none.
Some have "zero school experience," Hastings said. For one student, she has never actually spoken with the parents, relying instead on back-and-forth emails and a translation app.
"I love that the kids are exposed to lots of different cultures," Hastings said. But it "definitely presents a huge challenge. They come needing to learn school, really learn what it's like to be in a group of kids."
Dollars aside, Kist-Kline doesn't think Mason is the best place for Destination Excellence children. Their needs — medical, emotional, social — are outside the district's expertise. And if they're going back to their home countries in a year or two or less, a stint of traditional American schooling might not help them much long-term.
"Honestly, that's where my heart is," she said. "Our program isn't best serving these families."