This Utah city is quickly attracting Venezuelan migrants, creating a challenge for schools

With many Venezuelan families drawn to the community, often by word-of-mouth, there’s been rapid change.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Nichole Moore, a third grade teacher at Aspen Elementary School in South Jordan, helps Nicolas Perez, 8, from Peru, with his schoolwork on Friday, Sept. 15, 2023. The Jordan School District has seen an influx of migrant students, and is working with the community to support newcomers and their families.

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Without any warning, not even a posted notice, Antonio Valbuena said, he was forced to stand by as the Venezuelan government raided and seized his family’s dairy farm on a summer 2018 night.

“We lost everything,” Valbuena said. “The government expropriated everything.”

It was the second time in six years, he said, that the authoritarian government had taken a farm from his family. Some of his relatives still live in Maracaibo, the capital of Zulia state, in northwestern Venezuela.

But for Valbuena and his wife, Alixza Soto, it would be the last time. They took their then-9-year-old son and fled to the U.S., where they settled in Utah.

Many Venezuelan families like Valbuena’s are specifically coming to Herriman in southern Salt Lake County, often drawn by word-of-mouth from other new arrivals, according to Jordan School District officials.

The influx of Spanish-speaking students, some from other South American countries, has happened relatively quickly. Since 2017 alone, Herriman’s Latino/Hispanic population has quadrupled, increasing from 1,560 residents that year to about 7,760 in 2022, according to estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau.

(Antonio Valbuena) Antonio Valbuena's family dairy farm that he says the Venezuelan government seized in 2018 before he and his wife Alixza Soto immigrated to Utah.

(Antonio Valbuena) Antonio Valbuena and his family have been living in Herriman for five years, ever since they left Venezuela following the 2018 seizure of his family's dairy farm.

It’s meant rapid change for the city, which this year implemented an on-call language translation service available to all its employees, so they can readily talk with residents “who aren’t comfortable speaking English,” Herriman spokesperson Jonathan LaFollette said.

“From the city government’s perspective, we seek to serve all residents equally and welcome all,” LaFollette said.

But for the Jordan School District — which serves Herriman and other area cities, including West and South Jordan — it’s a challenge to equitably serve all students. Families arriving from other countries often need food, so that children aren’t showing up to class hungry, and connections to other community support.

“Coming from Venezuela, these little kids are cold,” said Suzie Williams, principal of Aspen Elementary in South Jordan. “And we’re finding that sometimes when it snows, they don’t come to school.”

New arrivals every day

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) A student gathers her things during class at Aspen Elementary School in South Jordan on Friday, Sept. 15, 2023. The Jordan School District has seen an influx of migrant students, with most coming from Venezuela.

It’s difficult to predict how many “newcomers” may arrive on a given day at the school district. Each foreign-born, recent arrival to the U.S. comes with a different background and needs. Some children may know a little English. Others, none at all.

Throughout the 2017-18 school year, Jordan schools enrolled 57 newcomers, according to district records. Last school year, that tally increased by over tenfold, with the district enrolling a record 882 newcomers.

The district is already on pace to beat that record. Since classes began in August, more than 585 newcomers have enrolled, and that number is only projected to grow.

Together, they speak more than 63 languages and represent 70 countries, but most — nearly half since 2017 — come from Venezuela, amounting to just over 1,000 students. About 7.7 million Venezuelans have left their home country since 2014, though the majority, 6.1 million, are being hosted in Latin America and the Caribbean, according to humanitarian aid organization World Vision, which says political unrest and an economic crisis in Venezuela have created a dangerous environment there.

The district’s quickly evolving student population is reflected in the extra money it’s received to help accommodate its newcomers. Roughly $380,000 in federal funds and $763,000 in state funds were allocated to Jordan schools to support English language learners this school year. The district in July also qualified for a one-time federal grant of roughly $38,000, because it saw a significant increase last year in immigrant and refugee enrollees.

In all, there are 5,000 English learners at Jordan schools, many whose families recently arrived in Utah, bringing with them only the few belongings they could carry.

Connecting newcomers with resources

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Marisol Mercado and Andrew Fuchs deliver "weekend packs" to students whose families need a little extra support at Aspen Elementary School in South Jordan on Friday, Sept. 15, 2023.

That’s why, each Friday, the staff at Aspen Elementary stuff oversized storage bags with essential items: canned vegetables, soup, cooking supplies and other basic necessities.

These “weekend packs,” as they’re called, are then loaded onto a small wagon and delivered to classrooms for students who need a little extra support.

“I can’t imagine what they’ve been through to get here,” Williams, the principal, said of the children and their families.

Aspen is a recent addition to the Jordan School District. Opened in 2021, more than 1/8 of its students are Spanish speakers, learning English as a second language. The school enrolls roughly 800 kids, with new students arriving “every day,” Williams said.

Williams also organizes winter clothing drives, Christmas tree drives and regularly provides food to families when asked, she said.

The district is also supporting newcomers through its Language and Culture Services Department. Michelle Love-Day, the department’s director, said much of her team’s work is about connecting families with existing resources — something the district hasn’t always done well, said Krista Mecham, a teacher specialist who supports Venezuelan families across 20 district elementary schools.

Mecham recalled when a student’s mother used to regularly travel “across the valley” years ago to get her GED diploma, not realizing that the district offered a local program for the high school equivalency diploma.

“We need to be connecting to these families, and connecting them to the things to navigate their way in this community and in our school system,” Mecham said.

That’s one reason why the district’s Fall Family Fair was born. The annual event includes outreach booths, health screenings, and information about organizations that specifically support the Latino community.

Hundreds of families attended this year’s fair, held in September at the West Jordan City Library. One goal, Mecham said: encouraging newcomer parents to join their school’s PTA.

“They’re coming from different cultures, they’re speaking a different language, and they don’t know that they can volunteer,” Mecham said. “And I want them to be included.”

‘They want to do so well’

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Antonio Valbuena embraces Michelle Love-Day at the Jordan School District's Family Engagement Center, at Copper Mountain Middle School, in Herriman, on Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2023.

Valbuena and Soto are now parents to three children, with their eldest currently navigating middle school in the Jordan School District. Valbuena, who worked as a lawyer in Venezuela, now works alongside his niece at an Amazon warehouse.

“To live without danger… what can you even say about it?” he said. “Now, my job is hard, I work in a warehouse. But I’m happy because my family is safe.”

Upon their arrival in Herriman, the family’s first priority was learning English. But patience is key, especially for children, said Nichole Moore, who teachers third grade at Aspen Elementary and oversees the school’s English Language Development program.

“They want to do so well,” Moore said. “It’s really important that we let them know that they’re smart, they’re great students; they aren’t going to be able to do everything in English right away, and it’s going to take time. It’s hard for a kid to realize that.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jordan School District parents and students attend the Fall Family Fair in West Jordan on Thursday, Sept. 7, 2023.

At Aspen specifically, English language learners aren’t separated into different classes. Instead, all students learn together, Williams said. For teachers, that involves monthly trainings on how best to educate English learners.

To get a leg up, the school also chiefly hires staff who already have their “English as a Second Language Endorsement,” a Utah State Board of Education certification that lets teachers teach English language learners. To get it, current or future teachers must take courses through a university or other state-approved program, among other pathways.

“Not everybody has it,” said Williams, “but then the question is, ‘Are you willing to become endorsed if I hire you?’, and most people are.”

As newcomers arrive at Aspen, they’re taught how to “function in the classroom,” Moore said, then assessed academically. If they have basic literacy skills in Spanish, for instance, “we will give them as much of the curriculum as we can in Spanish.”

English is then slowly introduced, with tests every few weeks to monitor student progress. During that time, translators are often needed, and communication often relies on pictures, gestures and videos, Moore said.

“Our goal is biliteracy,” she said. “We do want them to keep up their skills that they have in their native language.”

‘It’s important to participate’

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Antonio Valbuena, Alixza Soto and instructor Silviane Silveira at the Jordan School District's Family Engagement Center, at Copper Mountain Middle School, in Herriman, on Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2023.

Now an activist for Herriman’s Latino community, Valbuena said it’s important for migrant families to not only speak, read and write in English, but also their native language.

Some children arrive so young, they grow up primarily speaking English, even though their parents haven’t learned the language, he said.

“It creates problems in the family, communication difficulties,” Valbuena said.

Together, his family took advantage of the English classes offered at the district’s Family Engagement Center, which Soto said provided the “perfect chance to adapt.” They speak Spanish at home, and Soto is still learning English herself, but their eldest son “constantly” speaks it.

Valbuena wants other families to know they can learn, too — and do so much more.

Since leaving Venezuela, he’s made it a mission to be involved in his Utah community. He attends every school board and City Council meeting that he can. He also serves as a citizen adviser to Herriman police.

“I’m grateful for this country,” he said. “But Americans are not interested in knowing how their city runs. It worries me.”

He feels he lost his home country because he and others “didn’t participate.”

“It’s important to participate,” he added. “I’ve seen what could happen.”

How you can help:

Those interested in helping newcomers to the Jordan School District and their families can make a donation to the Jordan Education Foundation, said district spokesperson Sandra Riesgraf.

The organization is also holding a “Christmas for Kids” event, where middle and high school students are treated to a free holiday shopping spree. Donations specific to that event, as well as volunteers, are always welcome.

For more information, visit www.jordaneducationfoundation.org or call 801-567-8376.


— Tribune staff writer Shannon Sollitt contributed to this report.

Correction • Dec. 18, 5 p.m.: The story has been updated to correct that not all of the about 7.7 million Venezuelans who have left their home country since 2014 came to the U.S. The majority, 6.1 million, are being hosted in Latin America and the Caribbean, according to World Vision.

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