Spanish speakers at Jupiter High School seeking guidance are sent to Elisabeth Arriero. In the span of a few minutes Thursday morning, two young women found her office.
First, a 16-year-old asked if she could enroll in night classes and avoid the regular school day.
“We had some students drop out last year who just went to work,” Arriero said later that morning. “It broke my heart.”
Arriero asked the student to hold on for two more years in order to graduate. The student agreed with a smile and hugged Arriero before she left the room.
Then, an 18-year-old introduced herself. She graduated high school in Guatemala and heard she could enroll in the School District of Palm Beach County for a year and earn an American diploma.
Arriero encouraged her to certify her Guatemalan diploma and referred her to Jeannett Manzanero, director of the Kathryn W. Davis Global Education Center at Palm Beach State College.
“I like to maintain an open-door policy,” Arriero said afterward. “It’s kinda just a big family in here until everybody’s questions are resolved.”
‘I’m graduating thanks to you’
Arriero joined Jupiter High School before the start of the 2016-2017 academic year, once the school’s population of English Language Learners reached a threshold set by the school district.
She has about 200 students on her caseload. Most come from Central America, but some are from France, Brazil, Chile and Bolivia, she said.
Some immigrant students arrived to Jupiter High School with gaps in their education and lacking basic study and note-taking skills.
For her work serving this population, the Palm Beach School Counselor Association named Arriero Palm Beach County’s New School Counselor of the Year. Students at Jupiter High School agree she has made a difference in their lives.
“Thank you for all you have done this year,” Fabiana Bartolome wrote to Arriero in April. “I’m graduating thanks to you.”
“Thank you for believing in me,” wrote Alberto Quintero. “Thanks to you I am able to graduate.”
Helping immigrant students
Before she earned her master’s degree in school counseling from the University of North Carolina, Arriero worked as a newspaper reporter.
At the Charlotte Observer, her assignments included interviewing the mother of a murder-suicide victim, the founder of a nonprofit organization delivering nutritional packets to thousands of children around the world and a local invited to President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address.
Inspired to help young people facing mental health issues, Arriero said she discovered in graduate school her passion for helping immigrants.
School counselors work to keep students on track in the areas of academics, social and emotional learning and career and college readiness, Arriero said.
In Jupiter, some immigrant students face challenges such as navigating the school system without their parents as their caregivers, Arriero said. They may be burdened by attorney fees or they may have been asked to contribute financially by caregivers.
“I know they are under intense pressure,” she said. “It’s a balancing act to be sensitive to the situation they are coming from and to acknowledge my background is not the same as theirs.”
Still, Arriero said, she wants all her immigrant students to graduate and to feel pride in their background, cultural heritage and journey.
“They have a lot of strengths they are coming in with too, like this willingness to seek a better life here,” she said. “And there are adults in the community that can help them… resource centers like El Sol that can help them.”
The counselor’s office as a haven
At Jupiter High School, Arriero is part of a team of professionals focused on helping all students succeed. She pointed toward Julio Halty, the school’s language facilitator since 2000.
A witness to Jupiter’s growth in population and to changes in its demographics, Halty helps new students with the school’s registration process. And he helps them and their families access health, legal and career resources.
“When I started here, the school itself was only 1,500 kids,” he said. “This year, we are up to 3,200. And the Hispanic population was very small and now has ballooned to probably more than 10 percent, more than 15 percent.”
Halty acknowledged there is fear in the immigrant community, but he advised parents and students to feel secure and welcome in the School District of Palm Beach County.
Since Arriero joined the school, her office has become a haven for immigrant students, Halty said. Many visit throughout the day to chat or to use computers made available to them.
Recently, Halty said, the school developed a nine-week program for immigrant students aimed at helping them bridge the language and digital divide between them and their American peers.
While Halty spoke, a former Jupiter High School student waved at him from a distance. “He’s from Honduras,” Halty said. “He was ready to give up.”
Instead, the student graduated, Halty said, and was likely at the school to check in. “They all come back,” he said. “Many of them are trying to continue their education, so they go to Palm Beach State College and we help them with that.”
For 2015-2016, Hispanic students in the School District of Palm Beach County and in the state graduated at a rate of 79.5 percent, according to figures released by the Florida Department of Education.
In May, Arriero led about 40 of her students on a visit to Palm Beach State College. The public state college has been recognized for its commitment to serving Hispanic students.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 1,019 Hispanic students graduated Palm Beach State with an associate degree in 2015.
“Outreach efforts focused on parents who typically provide guidance to their children in Latino families, and special efforts were made to reduce financial barriers by clearly communicating the availability of financial aid,” states a February post on the Palm Beach State website.
For Arriero, college visits are part of her efforts to set high expectations for her students. “I do believe there are prejudices out there, of course, that they are going to have to overcome,” she said. “But that shouldn’t deter them from hard work and dedication.”
Students learning English might also be intimidated and fearful of ridicule.
“Be brave,” Arriero said. “I tell them to step out there and ask for the help of American students. But also to recognize they are giving something to those American students by having a relationship with them, too. It’s a cultural exchange.”
Story by Andres David Lopez