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Inside an enrollment office, a glimpse at families' diverse needs

Parents rushing to find spots for their children in city schools at the eleventh hour can expect to confront a thick bureaucracy, strict paperwork requirements, and long waits.

On a recent afternoon at a Department of Education enrollment center in Manhattan, the waiting room was crowded with harried parents juggling toddlers or trying to squeeze an enrollment consultation into a lunch break; large families of recent immigrants from China, the Dominican Republic, and Bosnia; and students seeking to reenroll after leaving the system.

Khemenec Pantin, the receptionist, is patient with all of them. “You need two proofs of address and a passport or birth certificate,” he rattles off in one breath as families approach his desk.

“It’s this busy every year,” Jimmy Bueschen, an enrollment coordinator, said as he bounced between the fax machine and a row of parents waiting to receive paperwork instructions. “This year is no different. Some parents are reasonable, and some aren’t.”

In his 15 years working in enrollment for the DOE, Bueschen said he is accustomed to hearing profanities and sighs from frustrated parents. Earlier this week, he said the worst was still to come.

“Next week, we’ll have a huge volume,” he said.

That’s when families will flood temporary registration centers that the department opens in the days before school starts. The 12 temporary enrollment centers across the five boroughs can expect to see between 100 and 500 students per day, according to DOE officials.

For the family members who spoke with GothamSchools this week, the process of finding a new seat in the school system, or switching schools, was more often than not fraught with misinformation, confusing forms, and language barriers.

Carla Estrada said she waited three hours at an enrollment office on the Upper West Side to find out whether her daughter, Gabriela Estrada, would have a seat in an eighth-grade dual-language classroom. But she could not receive a consultation because she did not bring all the required documents. Contreras, who moved to New York City from Guatemala in June and does not speak English, said the process was stressful for her, and the lack of a consultant fluent in Spanish added to her worries.

“I received very little help. They told me that there was only one option in all of Manhattan for us,” she said in Spanish. Estrada first visited the enrollment office in June, but was told it was too early in the summer for them to place her daughter. “I’m here again and they’re telling me they don’t have openings now!”

The DOE says every enrollment center has at least one Spanish speaker on staff. At the enrollment office at 333 Seventh Avenue, staff members can converse with families in Spanish, Italian, Mandarin and Korean. Parents can also speak to translators fluent in other languages by phone if necessary.

Mohamed Alomari came to the enrollment office in Chelsea for help understanding a letter sent to him earlier this month by the city. The letter said that his son, who requires special education services and also a dual-language program, would be removed from PS 41 in Greenwich Village, where he is set to enter fifth grade, and sent to PS 212 in Midtown West.

Alomari, who is fluent in Arabic but not English, said he wanted his son, Aukasha, to remain at his original school because there were other students who spoke Arabic who helped him with his lessons. He also said the commute to the new school would be too burdensome because he is raising his son by himself and must be at his job as a deli cashier early in the morning.

“I was very happy with the school. This new address is going to be far from home — very difficult to get him to,” he said.

Sandy Wray, 19, arrived at the enrollment office with her 10-month-old son Elijah and a specific goal: a spot at Vanguard High School in Manhattan, which provides child care for teenage mothers during the school day.

After three hours of waiting, Wray did not get what she wanted. Instead, she left with an interview scheduled at Independence High School, a Midtown transfer school that specializes in helping older students graduate quickly. Wray, who is re-entering 10th grade after leaving the system over a year ago to take care of her newborn son, said she would be content to attend Independence, if the school could help her graduate before turning 21.

“It turns out I don’t have enough credits for Vanguard,” she said. “But they told me I can get into Independence, that they will accept me.”

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