Helping Migrant Students and Families Find Their Way in New York City
6 sept 2023
Tomorrow, roughly one million students will begin classes in New York City public schools. Among them: almost 19,000 recently arrived migrant children who, with their families, have been bused here from border crossing points in Texas and Arizona or have made their way to New York on their own over the past 16 months. The New York City Department of Education (DOE), through its Project Open Arms, community-based groups, volunteers, and school staff have all stepped up to try to smooth their entry into school and resume educations often interrupted by the grueling cross-border migrations they’ve endured.That includes the InsideSchools team at the Center for New York City Affairs. Empowering public school parents to make informed decisions about their children’s education is our core mission. The challenges the newly arrived children face are daunting. Coming from a family of immigrants, and with 20 years of experience advocating for immigrant students, I’ve made it a priority to help these newly arrived families. Over the summer, we hosted eight in-person workshops (including the one pictured above) for hundreds of migrant families, at InsideSchools' home at The New School and at the shelters where families are, at least for the time being, living. We’ve also met one-on-one with parents, caregivers, and students to address their specific concerns. We have facilitated sessions primarily in Spanish, while relying on Google Translate for communicating in Haitian Creole, Georgian, Russian, and other languages. We’ve listened – and we’ve also provided much-needed help.Here's some of what we've learned firsthandFamilies aren’t receiving enough assistance or guidance. Project Open Arms is a good first step but more comprehensive support is needed. The larger shelters the migrants are in tend to have on-site DOE liaisons, but with limited availability (often only one day a week). Some have not had a liaison at all, even in the week before school starts. Families with questions are encouraged to go to the DOE’s Family Welcome Centers. (There are 11 throughout the city, each designated to assist with student admissions in particular community school districts.) However, navigating the city and our complex school system can be overwhelming, and simple things like subway fare pose real barriers. The enrollment process is confusing and families often receive conflicting information. Shelter and Welcome Centers staff also need additional training to support this unique population, especially about schools and programs with language and Special Education resources.Language access remains a paramount problem. While the DOE website is available in multiple languages, there are still gaps in communication. For example, DOE emails school acceptance offers to parents in English only. Fearing scams, families miss these messages. Unable to get them translated in a timely manner, they miss opportunities to get their children off enrollment waitlists. Also, DOE's MySchools web portal is its default mode of communicating with parents about admissions – but many migrant parents do not yet know how to log in or haven’t set up an account. School placements aren’t always a good fit. Some families who arrived towards the end of the 2022-23 school year now want to transfer to schools better equipped to meet their children’s language or other academic needs. Most migrant families are living in shelters distant from dual language programs or from schools with sufficient teachers and staff to support multilingual learners. Conversely, children assigned to more distant schools face transportation problems – and that’s compounded for families with children in both elementary and secondary schools, or in preschool programs. And many families are understandably nervous about sending children to schools a long subway ride away in a still-unfamiliar city.There’s an unmet need for 3K/Pre-K and childcare. Early childhood education spots are limited, if available at all, near most shelters. Getting a spot is confusing, and help doing so has been insufficient. Throughout the summer months, the InsideSchools team has been helping families overcome these and other problems. We’ve helped them find childcare centers, assisted them in getting on admission lists, and advised them on staying on top of the process of getting their pre-school-aged kids off waitlists. During our education pop-up at the Team TLC “Little Shop of Kindness” donated clothing center in Bryant Park, we smoothed entry into kindergarten while parents outfitted children with clothes and school supplies. We’ve helped parents figure out how to get school bus pickups for their kids – from the littlest ones to students with disabilities – or sign up for the student MetroCards allowing kids to ride free to and from school.
We’ve also provided families with lists of suitable nearby schools, including those with dual language programs and ones accepting multiple-age children within the same family. We have guided families in locating school supplies and backpacks. And we’ve answered questions about particular schools: Are student uniforms required? What kind of language programs are offered? What schools have programs that meet a student’s special needs or interests? This work has been heartening and enlightening. We’ve been able to help hundreds of families get their kids into good schools and ease their worries with some solid information and empathetic guidance. And based on what we've learned so far, we think the process for families, schools, and the City could be improved by: Leveraging the combined skillset of community-based organizations working with migrant families and those with education expertise like Project Rosseau and InsideSchools, by contracting with them to provide direct assistance. “Peer navigators” could, for example, help with the enrollment process, connect families to needed services, help them establish MySchools accounts, and more. Increasing the quantity, visibility and availability of shelter-based DOE liaisons.Streamlining the enrollment process for newcomers and ensuring that Family Welcome Centers, DOE liaisons, and school staff are well-informed and up to date on the process. Designating federal funding streams to support newcomer intake and translation/interpretation services as well as other support services.Like every family, these newcomers want what is best for their children. Enrolling them in school is the first step towards a brighter future. Many of these children have faced enormous trauma and need stability. Schools can provide that, and offer a welcoming environment. InsideSchools intends to be there, for educators, families, and children, as this new chapter in the story of this city of immigrants continues to unfold.
Natasha Quiroga is director of education policy and InsideSchools at the Center for New York City Affairs at The New School.
Photos by: Ashta Sethi.