Migrant students go to school in New York City
Influx of students tax New York schools and nonprofits
In September, parents in New York City’s District 30 elected Whitney Toussaint president of the local community education council. Toussaint ran for a seat on the council in 2021 due to concerns about her child’s individualized education plan and education during remote schooling. But within weeks of her first day in office, another issue took front and center—migrant students.
Federal law does not allow school officials to ask students about immigration status, so counting the exact number of migrant students is tricky. Toussaint said about 500 newly arrived children and youth in temporary housing have enrolled in the school district. During the 2019-20 school year, the district served 36,697 students.
Many of the migrant students end up at schools that have little support for English language learners due to those schools’ availability and proximity to shelters, Toussaint said. She referenced one school in her district that received as many as 50 migrant students. “That’s a couple of classrooms,” she said.
New York City public schools are no strangers to students arriving from other countries. According to the NYC Department of Education, 42 percent of its students in 2019-20 primarily spoke a language besides English at home. But since the first bus of migrants from Texas pulled up to the Port Authority in early August, about 6,000 students have arrived in the city. In the wake of budget cuts due to declining enrollment and pandemic-era aid ending soon, some school districts struggle to switch gears and beef up services for an influx of new students who often don’t speak English.
In August, New York City officials launched Project Open Arms to focus on incoming migrant students’ educational needs. For schools with more than six new students in temporary housing, the city promised $2,000 per homeless student for materials, tutoring, and bilingual services. The money is not supposed to go toward hiring for full-time positions.
While Toussaint applauded the city’s effort to fund schools facing a student influx, she said many schools need to hire more people. She wondered if the increased funding would be available for students who arrive later in the year: “We don’t know, are they going to continue to count? Because these children are still coming.”
For many migrant students arriving in New York City, understanding English is their first task. Open Door NJNY, an educational nonprofit, serves mostly Spanish-speaking immigrant families in New Jersey and New York. About 150 adults attend English classes at the organization’s main New York City location. Some of them bring children who participate in classes that the group’s founder, Luis Iza, compared to Vacation Bible School classes. Iza said he sympathizes with the challenges faced by immigrant children. He often found himself translating for his parents after his family immigrated from Cuba in 1961.
In 1988, Iza and his wife, Maggie, started Operation Exodus to work with Spanish-speaking children, and the ministry still operates today. But they later started Open Doors to focus on the needs of immigrant adults. “We came to the conclusion that ministering to the parents is the best way to affect the life of a family,” Iza said.
In September, the nonprofit opened a location in East Harlem. Eunah “Grace” Lee, a Korean immigrant who arrived in New York City about 18 years ago, heads up the site in addition to her full-time day job as a marketing consultant. “There’s a massive influx of new neighbors coming in,” Lee said of the mostly Spanish-speaking area.
Lee informs local schools about the nonprofit’s tutoring classes. She said many school officials are very interested in partnering to help parents learn English. “They have to help the children first,” Lee said of local schools. “But also helping parents is sometimes the foundation for the children to succeed and immerse in the society.” Lee lets them know what resources the group can offer, and she said schools welcome the idea.
Despite being only a couple of months old, the East Harlem location is already maxing out its available space and looking for a new location, Lee said. While the location doesn’t have English classes for K-12 students yet, Lee hopes they can add classes once they have more space and funding.
Overwhelmingly, parents in Toussaint’s district want to help migrant students. An intermediate school hosted a diaper drive for families with children too young for school, and bilingual parents already at the school often step in to help with interpreting for incoming families. One council member who also helps with interpreting showed Toussaint handmade signs around the school with Spanish directions for the bathroom, gym, and cafeteria. A PTA volunteer in the district emailed her about guidelines for hosting a Christmas toy and coat drive.
While Toussaint appreciates that no one has complained to her about the student influx, she worries that existing student needs may be overlooked in the rush to welcome new students. “We have schools that have a lot of families in temporary housing already,” she said. “What hurt me was when I heard someone say, ‘I’m going to donate this, but it’s only for the asylum-seeking kids, that’s it.’ And I’m just like, well, we have [other] kids that have needs also.”
Toussaint said school principals care deeply about all of their students and are trying to meet students’ needs as well as they can. But she still worries that migrant students, already facing trauma and language barriers, will struggle to find the help they need due to a lack of funding: “I just don’t think that it’s fair … to [principals], fair to the teachers at the schools, even fair to the kids.”
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